History of the TOEFL Test

The Creation of the TOEFL

The TOEFL was first developed by the National Council on the Testing of English as a Foreign Language, group of educators and government officials formed in 1962 for the purpose of creating an English-language assessment for international students who wished to study at universities in the United States. The council's efforts were funded by grants from the Ford and Danforth Foundations. First offered to students in 1964, the TOEFL was initially administered by the Modern Language Association, an organization established in 1883 to promote the study of language and literature. The original version of the TOEFL adhered to the conventional wisdom of language instruction at the time, which focused on studying each component of language competence separately. The first TOEFL thus included five distinct sections that evaluated reading comprehension, vocabulary, listening comprehension, English structure, and grammar, entirely with multiple-choice questions. Contemporary researchers were not completely unaware of the limitations of this approach, but the pedagogy of language was not yet sufficiently advanced to accommodate a broader assessment.

Educational Testing Service and the TOEFL

In 1965, administration of the TOEFL was taken over by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board. ETS is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1947 to administer the standardized tests of its constituent members, who were better suited to test creation and development than test administration. The College Board, best known for the SAT, was one of these members (though that test is currently administered by ETS, it is still owned by College Board). Sole responsibility for the TOEFL was assumed by ETS and the TOEFL Board (a 15-member committee of educators, public officials, and representatives of private foundations) in 1973.

Revisions to the TOEFL

A major drawback to the original version of the TOEFL was that it did not evaluate speaking or writing skills. While separate tests were being developed for these purposes during the 1970s and 1980s, most students took a streamlined version of the original TOEFL (first offered in 1976, this test reduced the number of sections from five to three). The Test of Spoken English (TSE) and Test of Written English (TWE) were added to the TOEFL in 1980 and 1986 respectively, creating what ETS referred to as a "suite" of assessments. This suite featured both multiple-choice questions and graded responses, and this basic framework remained in place into the 21st century. The TOEFL had always been a paper and pencil test, but in 1998, ETS began offering a computerized version (known as the computer-based test, or CBT). The CBT was important because it introduced technology into the TOEFL development and assessment process, which would have significant implications for the future of the examination.

Development and Introduction of the TOEFL Internet-Based Test

Educators were still concerned that the TOEFL did not sufficiently assess functional English-language capabilities and synthesis of English-language skills. Improving the exam in these areas was the philosophical basis for the creation of the TOEFL internet-based test (iBT), which was first taken by students in late 2005. The TOEFL iBT is intended to evaluate the ability to communicate in university settings, both in terms of coursework and day-to-day situations commonly encountered by students. The focus on distinct language skills has been replaced by exercises that emphasize communication and comprehension in spoken and written form through four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. The only significant revision to the TOEFL iBT since 2005 has been a reduction in the number of passages included in the reading section (from five to three or four), which took place in 2011. Since 1964, the TOEFL has been taken by more than 27 million students around the world, and TOEFL scores are currently accepted for university admission, professional licenses, and immigration visas.

TOEFL Internet Testing Displaces Computer and Paper Tests

The TOEFL CBT was discontinued one year after the introduction of the iBT (in September of 2006). The TOEFL paper-based test (PBT) is now available only in selected locations where internet testing is either prohibited or impractical, and the PBT will eventually be discontinued as well. The vast majority of test centers around the world offer the iBT exclusively, including every country in North America and Europe and most nations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The iBT is now taken by over 97% of international students who opt for the TOEFL. Though many universities will still accept the PBT, students are encouraged to take advantage of the iBT's many benefits if at all possible. The PBT still includes the writing assessment, but the speaking test is no longer a component of the exam, and this is a significant problem for international students who wish to make the most of their university experience.

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