Changes in English-Language Exam Inhibit Access of Foreign Students to U.S. Universities

Academe, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

Changes in English-Language Exam Inhibit Access of Foreign Students to U.S. Universities


IN FEBRUARY, FOLLOWING A worldwide protest among academics, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) suspended computer administration of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in some parts of Africa. Educators who deal with foreign students worry that computerization, together with rising exam fees, may limit the access of foreign students to U.S. universities, at least in the short term.

ETS, based in Princeton, New Jersey, is the world's largest private institution to measure students' educational achievement. The service administers 9 million tests each year in the United States and abroad. In July 1998, it introduced a computer-based version of the TOEFL, which U.S. colleges and universities use to assess the Englishlanguage skills of applicants from foreign countries. The plan was to discontinue the paper version of the TOEFL as soon as the computer exam was up and running in a country. In Africa, ETS relied on Sylvan Learning Centers and temporary mobile test units to administer its computerized tests.

Criticism that began months ago over the shift to computer-based testing in Africa turned into public protest in January, when H-Net, an online network of humanities and social-science scholars, issued a statement on the Internet. The statement noted that permanent test centers exist in only fourteen of the forty-six sub-Saharan African countries and that mobile centers had not been made available in all countries. Moreover, the statement said, some countries served by the mobile centers offered only one test each year, and travel to the centers could be next to impossible for prospective test takers. With the advent of computerization, the number of students taking the TOEFL in subSaharan Africa declined precipitously.

Mark Kornbluh, director of H-Net, reports that he received immediate replies from scholars around the world after issuing the Internet statement; ETS and TOEFL officials also contacted him, he says. Within two weeks of the statement's posting, ETS had announced that it would abandon mobile administration of the TOEFL in Africa and offer a paper-and-pencil version of the test by May to students who live farther than 125 miles from a Sylvan testing center.

John H. Yopp, ETS vice president for graduate and professional education, explains that the testing service relies on the international educational community and in-country advisers for information about student access to tests. In Africa, says Yopp, "we found out that the access we desired was not being provided, and we reintroduced paper-andpencil tests." As a result of lessons learned in Africa, Yopp reports, "ETS is making a concerted effort to be more efficient in responding to problems in a shorter time frame. …

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