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How the TOEFL Test is made.

Understand the structure of the TOEFL iBT test.

Four sections of a TOEFL® Test (watch video)

The TOEFL Test allows you to demonstrate that you have the English language skills necessary for effective communication in academic setting. Here’s an overview of what to expect on the test. The TOEFL Test has four sections, Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. All four sections are completed in one testing session, which takes about four hours.

  1. The first section is Reading. The Reading section has three or four passages of about 700 words each. For each passage, you will answer 12 to 14 multiple choice questions. You will have 60 to 80 minutes to complete the Reading section. And during that time, you can return to previous questions to review or change your answers. 
  2. Next, is the Listening section. For this section, you will wear a headset to hear the conversations and lectures. There are two or three conversations. Each is about three minutes long and has five multiple choice questions. There are four or six lectures, each of those about three to five minutes long and has six multiple choice questions. In the Listening section, you will only hear the conversations and lectures one time. Also you must answer the questions in the order that they are presented. In this section, you can’t go back to previous questions. You will have 60 to 90 minutes to complete the section. You probably notice that in the Reading and Listening sections, the testing time and number of questions can vary. That is because every test includes some extra questions that are being evaluated by ETS for use in future tests and do not count toward your score. So, your test will either have extra Reading questions or extra Listening questions, but never both. And you won’t know which questions are the extra ones so make sure you do your best on all of them. After the Listening section, there is a required 10-minute break. So use the time to have some water or a snack and refresh yourself for the rest of the test.
  3. After the break is the Speaking section. The Speaking section has six tasks and takes about 20 minutes to complete. Some tasks require you to listen to part of a conversation or lecture, so you will continue to use your headset. Some also require you to read a short passage. For each task, you will be asked a question and will be given a short time to prepare your response. Then, you will speak into the microphone on your headset for 45 to 60 seconds, depending on the question.
  4. Last, is the Writing section, in which you will complete two writing tasks in 50 minutes by typing your responses into the computer. In the first task, you will read a passage and listen to a short lecture, then write your response. You will have 20 minutes to write your response. In the second task, you will be asked your opinion on an issue and you will have 30 minutes to write your response. And that’s it.

After you finish the test, you should go do something fun. You’ve earned it. You did your best on an important test and that’s a great accomplishment.

How the TOEFL® Test is Made

People often ask, “How do you decide what to put on the test?” and “How do you create the test?”

Producing a Stimulus and Questions

The development of TOEFL test content begins with test developers who are experts in a wide variety of subjects. These test developers search for source material that is typical of what can be found in a first- or second-year university-level class. They consult textbooks and published research studies, work with professors and researchers, and draw on their own expertise to produce what we call a stimulus—material such as a reading passage or a lecture. They then create questions which ask about the content of the stimulus. But things don’t end there.

Fairness, Reliability and Validity

Next, the stimulus and questions go through multiple reviews by other experts. They are reviewed for content accuracy. They are also reviewed forfairness, reliability and validity. To be fair, test content must not be biased toward one group over another. It must not include content that could be unnecessarily upsetting to test takers; this could cause them to perform poorly due to the stress of focusing on the emotionally charged content. To be reliable, tests given at different times must be of a similar difficulty to one another. To be valid, the test must be designed to assess only the skills that need to be measured. In other words, we must test what we say we are testing. A test of English should not ask people to solve complex math problems because we are not testing math skills—we are testing English skills.

Multiple-choice Questions

For multiple-choice questions in the Reading and Listening sections, reviewers ensure that there is one and only one right answer, unless the question was specifically designed to have more than one right answer. They also ensure that right answers are definitely right and that wrong answers are definitely wrong. For Reading, right answers represent what a good, competent reader of English would understand from the passage. For Listening, right answers represent what a good, competent listener of English would understand from the conversation or lecture. Each set of questions covers the content of an entire reading or listening stimulus.

Editing and Design

The stimulus and questions are then modified as needed, in consultation with the original test developer who produced the material. Then they are sent to editors who fact check the material, correct any grammatical and typographical errors, and ensure a consistent style. If an image is needed, such as artwork or a photograph, it is created or obtained by our art department. If copyright permission is needed, it is acquired by our copyright permissions department. If recordings are needed, they are produced in a studio by voice actors who read scripts containing the test material. Once all the materials are gathered, they are entered into a system that displays the content exactly as it will be seen by test takers, and everything is proofed several more times.

Pretesting and Finalizing

Some of the content is pretested to determine whether the test questions perform as anticipated. They then analyze the pretest results and can determine from these analyses whether a question is too difficult, not difficult enough, or whether it is more difficult for one population than for a different population of the same ability level. For example, did females perform better than males on a question? This would suggest that there is a problem—perhaps something about the question is not fair to males. They want to be fair and equitable to everyone, so such a question would need to be examined and probably revised. Also, they can see from the pretest results whether a large percentage of people of high English proficiency chose an incorrect answer. This could mean that the incorrect answer choice that people chose is faulty in some way. It could also mean that the correct answer is not precisely or clearly written. Problematic answer choices are then modified. After all analyses are complete and any necessary modifications are made, the question can be used in a test.

Test Assembly and Certification

All finalized stimuli and questions are sent to a database from which test assemblers choose material and assemble a test. Experts then take the entire test, going through the questions one by one. These experts also consider an assembled form as a whole. If overlapping content is found, it is replaced. The form is then certified as ready to be administered at test centers around the world.

But that’s not enough. Once test takers have taken the test and the data is returned, they look at the results to make sure that all the test questions performed as intended. If any question did not, it is thrown out and does not count toward a test taker’s score.

Responsibility to You

So whenever you take your TOEFL iBT® test, you can be assured that hundreds of ETS employees have worked to make sure your score accurately reflects your ability. They know that their tests have an impact on real people, so it is their responsibility to create the highest quality assessments possible, one question at a time. 

How the TOEFL® Test is Scored

Each of the four sections of the test—Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing—is scored on a scale from 0-30. The total score is the sum of the four section scores, with a range of 0-120.

Accommodations and Accessibility

ETS is committed to serving test takers with disabilities or health-related needs by providing reasonable accommodations that are appropriate given the purpose of the test.

For information regarding accommodations for test takers with disabilities or health-related needs, visit Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-related Needs (opens new window)

For information regarding TOEFL iBT® test preparation tools in accessible formats, visit TOEFL iBT Test Preparation Tools in Accessible Formats

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