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A Brief Introduction to the TOEFL Test

By Peterson's Staff updated on Thursday, January 24, 2013

If you’re a foreign student planning to attend college or graduate school in the United States, chances are you are going to take the TOEFL®—the Test of English as a Foreign Language. More than 5,200 colleges and universities worldwide require this test as part of your application. It is designed to evaluate your mastery of the English language and your ability to be successful in an English-speaking academic environment. Each year, more than half a million students take the TOEFL test, primarily for the purpose of attending graduate school. The TOEFL is also used by undergraduate institutions and by several government agencies and other organizations for professional certification.

TOEFL test administration in the past and present

Until 2005, the TOEFL was administered as a paper-based test (PBT) or a computer-based test (CBT) at designated ETS test centers worldwide. (ETS is the Educational Testing Service, the agency that develops and administers the test.) A new version of the test, the TOEFL iBT®, or internet-based TOEFL, was introduced in the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Puerto Rico in 2005. Starting in March 2006, ETS began introducing the TOEFL iBT to other countries around the world, including selected cities in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Eventually, the TOEFL iBT will be integrated and available worldwide, but until then, the paper-based version (along with its Test of Spoken English) will still be administered in several countries. You can find out which version your location offers at www.ets.org. The computer-based version of the test is no longer available.

What does the TOEFL test measure?

Historically, the CBT and the PBT versions of the TOEFL would test English language skills by evaluating a person's reading, writing, and listening. Until the paper-based version is totally phased out, the TOEFL test will continue to evaluate your proficiency in this manner. However, the TOEFL iBT test has a new format that emphasizes your ability in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. During the test, you may be asked to read text and listen to a lesson, and then write or speak your response. You should take this into consideration as you plan your TOEFL preparation.

During the Internet-based TOEFL test, test centers will record your speech, and also provide audio presentations during the testing—a first for a global standardized test! ETS refers to this new format as an "integrated tasks" test, and intends to provide a more complete assessment of your language skills. Schools should be able to look at your TOEFL score and get a clear picture of how well you will be able to communicate and learn in an English-speaking academic environment.

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