Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
3rd Mar 2021

ETS launching a new TOEFL exam this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • A new exam, TOEFL Essentials, will be available to test takers by August 2021
  • The test is designed as a more affordable, more convenient alternative to the TOEFL iBT

With testing and admissions cycles so badly disrupted this year, many universities and colleges have had to become a lot more flexible around English language testing.

Some have adopted test-optional policies, others have begun to accept a wider range of proficiency tests. One effect of all that is that more affordable and convenient language tests – notably Duolingo but others as well – have gained much more acceptance in university admissions offices than ever before.

Such tests "existed before the pandemic but they hadn't been widely accepted," says Srikant Gopal, the executive director of the TOEFL Program at ETS. "The pandemic disrupted the entire testing cycle and rhythm of testing, and so this past year has been a period of experimentation that has benefited some of those low-cost providers. But our view is that that is not sustainable going forward and that the market needs a higher-quality option."

ETS aims to provide that option with a new TOEFL product that will launch later this year. The new test, TOEFL Essentials, is clearly intended as a counter to a growing field of more affordable competitors.

As Inside Higher Ed recently reported, the Duolingo test, which costs US$49 and takes about an hour to complete, was accepted by "only dozens" of US colleges before COVID. The Duolingo website indicates the test is now accepted by nearly 1,600 institutions worldwide.

In comparison, the TOEFL iBT costs up to US$225 in the US (with prices running higher or lower in markets around the world) and takes up to three hours to complete. While pricing is not yet final, ETS expects TOEFL Essentials to cost roughly half of the iBT price (so somewhere around US$100-US$120) and to take 90 minutes to complete.

The TOEFL iBT is "the gold standard for accessing someone's ability to succeed in a university environment," maintains Mr Gopal. "It is universally accepted, and gives universities and colleges the assurance that [the applicants they accept] will meet their standards."

But where the TOEFL iBT focuses on English communication in an academic context, TOEFL Essentials is designed to be a broader, more versatile test. About half of the content is academic; the other half is more general “life skills” English.

As a more affordable, more convenient alternative to the iBT, ETS believes that TOEFL Essentials can help universities and colleges reach a larger applicant pool. Building on the lessons learned in home-based test administration over the past year, TOEFL Essentials will also be taken by students at home, supported with a combination of human and AI proctoring.

"The scores are as reliable, valid, and accurate as any test from ETS," adds Mr Gopal. "But as universities around the world try to recruit high-quality students, they want to do whatever they can to reduce barriers for students, including with respect to English language testing. We want to help universities attract new and more diverse applicants but also maintain quality standards at the same time."

Getting ready for launch

In a survey of roughly 250 universities across major study destinations, 90% said they would be likely to accept TOEFL Essentials scores for admissions in 2022. Nearly all respondents (95%) saw the test as beneficial in attracting quality applicants. ETS is now conducting briefings for institutions through the first half of this year leading up to the official release of the new test in August 2021.

Between now and then, ETS plans to release a concordance table mapping test scores on TOEFL Essentials to the iBT and other standardised tests, and test preparation materials and resources for teachers are also in development.

For additional background, please see:

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