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Taking On TOEFL

For years, students from around the world have needed two things to be admitted and enroll at American colleges: a visa and an acceptable TOEFL score.

The latter — the acronym stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language — is about as high stakes as a high stakes test can be. Colleges claim not to have automatic cutoffs for the SAT or ACT, but many institutions have no hesitation about setting absolute minimum TOEFL scores. The reliability of TOEFL is also high stakes for colleges. Many of the foreign students submitting TOEFL scores are applying to graduate programs, and admissions officers aren’t just deciding whether to admit them, but are de facto deciding who will be TA’s two or three years down the road, in front of classrooms of freshmen.

With more than 800,000 students taking TOEFL a year, the test is also of great importance to the Educational Testing Service, which is seeing its SAT exam facing criticism for embarrassing scoring errors and a move by liberal arts colleges to drop the test.

Now TOEFL is also getting competition, and the competition has set off debates at American colleges over the best way to measure students’ English competency, the obligations of American colleges to students from the poorest parts of the world, and the changing nature of international recruiting.

The challenger to TOEFL is the International English Language Testing System, known by its acronym, IELTS. Co-sponsored by the English testing entity of the University of Cambridge, and British and Australian organizations that encourage international education, IELTS has long been the dominant test for students from non-English speaking countries seeking to enroll in English-speaking nations of the British Commonwealth. But in the last three years, IELTS has quietly become a force in the United States as well, where the number of colleges accepting IELTS on equal footing with TOEFL has doubled, to more than 800.

The increased acceptance of IELTS in the United States has in turn made the test more popular for students abroad. The Chinese press — which pays close attention to trends in international education — has had numerous reports about IELTS. People’s Daily reported that in the last three months, 17,000 people took the IELTS in Shanghai, up from 10,000 in the same three-month period a year ago, and that IELTS officials have been adding testing locations and exam times all over China.

The competition already appears to be prompting changes by both testing agencies — with IELTS moving toward more Internet-based testing (a change recently instituted by TOEFL). And TOEFL last month for the first time adopted a sliding scale on fees, so that people taking its test in Bangladesh don’t have to pay the same as those in Switzerland. (IELTS has long had such a policy, and some American college officials have been bothered by TOEFL’s old policy, fearing it discouraged applications from the third world.)

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