For US students, tests like the SAT, ACT and GRE mark the path to college and graduate school. But for hundreds of thousands of international students hoping to study in the US, a major concern is proving their language skills on the TOEFL -- the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Now that test has undergone a major makeover, aimed at better evaluating how well applicants can communicate in English. The test, which was launched yesterday, has some students -- particularly Asians -- worried they'll be disadvantaged because of how they were taught English in school.
Last year, 750,000 students took the old, mostly multiple-choice TOEFL. But in recent years, many of the 5,200 English-speaking colleges and universities that use the exam have grown concerned the test fails to identify students who master only "textbook" English.
After a decade's research, the Educational Testing Services will be giving the new TOEFL "iBT" (Internet-based test) this weekend in US test centers. The exam will phase in worldwide over the next year.
Perhaps the biggest change is a new speaking component; previously, ETS offered a separate speaking test, but few students took it. More broadly, the focus shifts to how well students read, write and speak in combination.
It's a much more significant reworking than the recent makeover of the SAT. And the changes have some students nervous, particularly those from Asia, where schools generally emphasize vocabulary and grammar over speaking.
"Most Asians, especially [from] Japan, Korea, Taiwan, love reading, structure, grammar," Yoshihiko Iwasaki, a Japanese student hoping to attend business school, said while on break from a Kaplan TOEFL test-prep class in Boston earlier this week. "[Our] speaking is weak, because sometimes, it's impolite to speak out, to describe an opinion, or talk to the teacher. When we take a class, we just sit and take notes and memorize."