Writing Section of the TOEFL iBT
On the TOEFL iBT writing section, students must complete two written essays. Total section timing is 50 minutes, which is divided into a 20-minute segment for an integrated writing task and a 30-minute block for an independent writing task. Human graders trained by ETS read all essays, which are assessed on a scale of 0 to 5 (on score reports, this is called a "task rating"). Test-takers also receive a scaled writing section score of 0 to 30 along with brief and general comments on both essays. The primary criteria used by graders to evaluate essays are development, organization, and language use.
As denoted by the term, iBT integrated writing essays involve both reading passages and listening excerpts. Students first read a brief text on a general or academic topic, and then listen to a portion of a lecture on that same topic. An essay prompt asks students to summarize what was discussed in the lecture and how it either supports or undermines the content of the reading passage. On the actual test, this exercise will be referred to as "Writing Based on Reading and Listening." The suggested length of the essay is 150-225 words.
On the iBT independent writing task, students write an essay in response to a prompt that can deal with a wide variety of general topics. This task is based on the essay prompt only and does not include any reading passages or lecture excerpts. Essay prompts typically ask students whether or not they agree with a certain statement, their opinions on issues of public interest, or what they would do in a given situation. The independent writing task is also known as "Writing Based on Knowledge and Experience." As indicated by the directions that accompany the essay prompt, the most effective independent essays are usually at least 300 words in length.
While preparing for the iBT writing section, test-takers should focus primarily on developing the ability to address the relevant tasks in concise fashion. Pay special attention to answering the specific questions asked within the suggested essay wordcounts (students will not be rewarded for excessively long essays; in fact, they will almost certainly be penalized for too much irrelevant content). It is also crucial for students to practice writing essays within the iBT writing section's time constraints. The most successful essays are coherently structured, articulately developed, and correct in terms of the conventions of written English. Graders are mainly concerned with essay content, and it is possible to earn a high score in spite of a few spelling or grammar mistakes if the test-taker accurately explains the most important points associated with the essay. The taking of notes is allowed while completing the iBT writing section, and students may therefore outline their essays before writing the actual text.
TOEFL iBT writing standards can be set either at the institutional, divisional, or departmental level. Some schools consider writing skills to be more important than others. The total TOEFL score requirement for graduate students at UCLA is 87, but this composite score must consist of 25 writing, 24 speaking, 21 reading, and 17 listening (note that the expected writing score is the highest of these). Harvard University is an example of an institution that values all TOEFL scores equally (the minimum total score for most programs is 100, with at least 25 on each section). It is also common for universities to consider iBT total scores only and to have no specific requirements with respect to the writing section. Even in these cases, poor writing skills can be harmful to student prospects because low writing scores will obviously affect an applicant's ability to receive the expected total score.
Independent researchers have explored the validity of the iBT writing section from a variety of perspectives. A doctoral dissertation written at Georgia State University in 2011 found "empirical evidence" that the two types of writing tasks included on the iBT writing section each elicited distinctive forms of writing, "thus justifying the concurrent use of them on an exam." A master's thesis written at the University of Illinois in 2010 asserted that writing section scores can serve as an "additional reference" for appropriate placement in remedial English courses. A 2013 paper found that the essay scores given by human graders could be predicted by certain "linguistic features" associated with complexity and sophistication (such as diversity of word choice, use of prepositional phrases, and variable sentence structures). The results of these studies seem to indicate that the iBT writing section is a valid assessment, but questions have been raised that will likely suggest further refinements.