Lost in Translation: What the TOEFL Measures and What it Doesn’t

According to the State Department, there are now over a million international students in college and universities across the US. In order to be accepted, most have to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL. It’s intended to measure English proficiency. But as Shannon Lin reports, there are concerns the test might not be an accurate assessment.

SOUND: Music, laughing, talking.

Lin: It’s a Saturday night. Members of Columbia University’s Taiwanese Graduate Student Association are at a hot pot restaurant in Flushing. They’re crowded around a small wooden table piled with bright orange plates of fish balls, sliced beef, and raw vegetables. They take selfies and trade gossip in their native Mandarin.

SOUND: Music, laughing, talking.

As she cooks a piece of beef, Victoria Yang opens up about her struggle, one that’s familiar to the group: trying to keep up in class when everything is in English.

Yang 1

(in Mandarin) While I scored pretty high on the TOEFL, I can only understand a third of what my teacher’s are saying. Seventy percent of the time, I’m guessing.

Victoria Yang studies data science which she says she chose because coding doesn’t require as much English.

Like the other students here tonight, Yang passed the TOEFL but she says her score doesn’t accurately reflect her English proficiency.

Across the room, Yating Yang, no relation to Victoria, is cooking a piece of tofu. She says it’s impossible to measure someone’s language proficiency in just four hours.

Yang 1

I think TOEFL in general is not a test that measures your ability. It’s more about testing strategies. So if you know how to do good on a test, that doesn’t mean you’re good at English just that you are good at taking the test.

And prospective students like Victoria and Yating spend thousands of dollars on test prep. According to the financial consulting firm EY-Parthenon, last year China’s test prep industry was worth about $1.7 billion.

But experts and students alike are concerned the TOEFL is a test you can study for but doesn’t prepare you for studying English in America.  

Robin Harvey teaches multilingual studies at NYU. She says the TOEFL provides limited information about student’s English ability.

Harvey 1

Language assessment exams are really good at testing how you respond to questions on a language assessment exam.

Harvey says the TOEFL doesn’t factor in cultural nuances.  

Harvey 2

There’s one person speaking to you in measured tones in you know, at an appropriate pace and you have a chance to respond. So that’s very different from a classroom environment.

Teachers often use conversational English. Some speak fast or might have accents which can leave foreign students struggling.   

According to a 2016 article published in the Journal of International Students, there is a lack of research measuring how foreign students perform in US classrooms.

Deborah Crusan is a former board member of TESOL International Association, a nonprofit that teaches English to non-native speakers. She says though the TOEFL has problems, it’s the best option.

Crusan 1

The way you should test speaking proficiency would be a least to have two raters rate people face to face, but you know how expensive that would be and how would you do it all over the world.

The Educational Testing Service which administers the TOEFL, did not respond to requests for comment.

Unless an alternate is proposed, NYU Professor Robin Harvey says schools will need to provide support for foreign students who aren’t prepared to study in English.

Back in Flushing, Victoria Yang says getting into an American university was easy. Now the challenge is to keep up.

Yang 2

It’s easy to get a good score but it’s not usable. I cannot write and I cannot speak.

With one year left till she graduates and has to find a job, Yang says she’s working hard outside of class. Listening to podcasts and watching American shows to pick up on the slang that never appeared on her TOEFL exam.

Shannon Lin, Columbia Radio News.


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