Writing Test on the Paper-Based TOEFL

Format of the Test of Written English

The Test of Written English (TWE) involves writing a single essay on a given topic. The TWE is the last section of the TOEFL PBT to be administered, and test-takers are given 30 minutes to complete the essay. Though the TWE does not contribute to the total PBT score, this section of the TOEFL is not optional (in order to receive an official score for the PBT, students must write the essay and answer at least one multiple-choice question on each of the other three sections). The TWE is the only section of the PBT that is evaluated by human graders, who are recruited and trained by ETS.

TWE Essay Subjects and Essay Prompts

Essay topics on the TWE are fairly general and do not require any specialized knowledge. Students are asked to express and support their personal opinions on issues raised by the essay prompts, which may cover subjects such as technology or education from a general-interest (non-specialist) perspective. These prompts commonly include directions such as "discuss [the given] positions using concrete examples of both," "do you agree or disagree with the following statement?," "which view do you support and why?," or "use reasons and specific examples to support your opinion."

TWE Writing Skills

ETS intends the TWE to be a partial supplement to the assessment of written English included on the PBT's structure and written expression section. Important skills for the TWE include the ability to express and organize ideas in written form, using evidence to support those ideas, and understanding the conventions of written English. Essay prompts are deliberately worded in simple English in order to ensure that the primary focus is on composition skills rather than reading comprehension.

TWE Policies

Essays on the TWE must be written by hand on paper provided at the test center. Students are not allowed to consult any outside sources for their essays, but unlike other sections of the PBT, they may write notes to themselves while taking the TWE for purposes such as essay organization. ETS evaluates all essays for originality, and writings that are substantially similar to those provided by other test-takers or essays that draw on published sources without attribution will be thoroughly investigated for possible plagiarism. Such investigations may lead to delays in scoring or cancellation of scores.

TWE Scoring Procedures

TWE essays are scored from a low of 0 to a high of 6, with half-point increments possible. Any attempt to write the given essay will receive a score of at least 1 (a score of 0 is received only by students who provide irrelevant, incomprehensible, or foreign-language responses). Essays that are given scores of 6 show effective writing skills, are well organized, and display consistent use of language. Each essay is graded by multiple readers, who are usually English or ESL teachers at the secondary or tertiary level. All essay scores are the average of at least two reader assessments (a third reader is consulted if there are discrepancies between the two original scores of more than one point).

TWE Scores at Universities

Because the TWE is not a part of the total PBT score, some institutions have minimum TWE score requirements. Monash University, for example, accepts four different tests of English language proficiency, but students who choose the TOEFL PBT must receive TWE scores of at least 4.5. The School of Law at St. John's University expects all of its applicants taking the PBT to achieve TWE scores of at least 5. At Duke Divinity School, the TWE standard depends on the degree program. Most degree offerings will accept TWE scores of 5, but master of theology applicants must receive a TWE score of 6. ETS statistical analysis shows that the mean TWE score for all students is 3.7, with a score of 4.0 in the 60th percentile and a score of 5.0 in the 92nd percentile.

Research on the TWE

One issue that has been raised in research on the TWE is the effect of time constraints on student performance. In a paper published in 2010, researchers tested the results of longer essay writing periods on a number of variables in student performance, and found many of these variables to be unaffected by additional time. Extended essay writing periods were, however, of greater benefit to high-proficiency students than other groups. Other studies have demonstrated consistency in the scores awarded by TWE essay graders and correlations with the other sections of the PBT, but researchers have also noted that the TWE is most useful for academic placement and is not a reliable predictor of academic performance.

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