Attention and distractions: reasons I don’t fancy iBT TOEFL

Last weekend I spent most of the day (read: five hours) musing myself (I am a bit ironic but this is my rant and rave) through procedure I call the performance of being capable to go through iBT TOEFL test. What kind of test iBT TOEFL is? It is test of English as a foreign language for undergrad, graduate students, professionals, researchers world wide. For those who want certificate or  test their English capabilities, academic or professional purposes, for non English speakers, for native English speakers, you name it.

Once upon a time there was paper based TOEFL, human TOEFL test (no muss-no fuss) I had certificate in 2003 (for US purposes then). Now I was asked to go through iBT TOEFL (not that my English is bad or something but just as “”formality”). iBT TOEFL stands for Internet based test TOEFL. I didn’t prepare for it as I am pretty confident in holy 4’s – Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing sections, but I wanted to go to the forum community and check out what other folks say. Mostly PhD scholars and many professionals – English native speakers from United States preparing for the test weeks and months in advance. Many of them “failed” or didn’t reach the score that the institution asked from them and all frustration, sharing information can be read on TOEFL community forum.

Then the little light bulb alarmed me, and after reading testimonials I thought I should prepare myself in technical way: go through sampler I got for free when I registered and paid for test, plus a good friend of mine managed to hack into Kaplans’ version of iBT TOEFL book/interactive software with 4 test simulations. This all happened in 2 days period prior to testing day, and have to admit that I was a bit discouraged as:

1. iBT TOEFL  test is everything but objectively measuring and evaluating your English language skills (especially referring to Speaking and Writing section). First two sections (Reading and Listening) are based on questions and four answers. It is complexed as it “measures” not only grammar but comprehension, the ability to interconnect through different passages of the text, how fast you absorb data from all the interdisciplinary fields, but yours. And of course, time is so limited.

2. I appeared an hour prior the test and found a mess in testing center with lot of Italians totally confused and frenzied. Did I mention that I took the test in Rome?  In so called training center with few rooms so called computer labs? [disclaimer: you are lucky if you can skip iBT in Italy, you’ll know why in the next paragraphs].

3. iBT TOEFL is highly academic content test created for graduate students and professionals in different area of human activity. There are lot of unfamiliar narrow-professional terms that you never heard because they are not your area of study. You must know how to navigate through many passages and interconnect the information, even tiny details. You have to use your memory all the time and focus, focus. Offered answers (usually two of four of them) can refer on the sentence or the word because they are so damn similar – so you have to decide either one or two. If you make here mistake, you loose the point. In other words – try to figure out what the author wanted to say. This usually works if you have optimal conditions for test-taking, but…

4. Conditions on the test day: I was so determined, cheered up, and super happy to finish with that, and what I found were computer rooms with no functioning AC’s (cooling system), some of them stopped to work on 35 Celsius degrees (hot, hot very hot). Windows were closed. We were boiling. No air, no thinking. My brain couldn’t process any information on the part Reading and Listening. I was so angry cursing paleontology eras and the changes in the Earth core, Whales and other species that are dying, and the problem how to decrease CO2 in deep blue ocean. Then, when people started to complain due to the lack of the oxygen, many of them left the room, organizers opened the windows and the noise from the street interfered with our headsets and Speaking section. During the speaking I was so revolted that I talked and talked and couldn’t wait to finish with writing. Another hideous iBT thing: you have 10 seconds to prepare what you heard and read and then to summarize all in 30 0r 45 or 60 seconds. Then you have Q and A’s from academic lectures heard/read on the topics that are not familiar to you. Bullshit! Pardon my language, but this is true. Writing was pretty easy for me as I don’t mind to write surrounded by cacophony. So that was about test (infra)structure and conditions.

5. Also, you have only 10 min break in between Reading/Listening and Speaking/Writing section – just enough to go to the toilet, drink some water, and eat tiny chocolate if you are lucky as the clock on your computer is ticking. So beside timing your reading of the academic passages from marine biology, archeology, maths, etc. you should time and practice going to the toilet, mind you. To do test properly usually takes 4- 4.5 hrs.

6. Hypothesis that iBT TOEFL is big money sucking-machine. Two important sections of the test (Speaking and Writing) are evaluated by humans. Now comes catch 22: many of them are not academics or objective. Many cases showed that they give much lower scores on these two, so the test takers could ask for rescoring (which costs additional money) and they would raise up score up to 4-6 points. A pharmacist I was talking with in the last 3 days, a woman from California is taking the test for several times as she had bad scores in Speaking section and her employer asked for specific score (e.g.30). She is very frustrated as she told me she believes that iBT TOEFL is a big money-sucking machine because there are lot of people like her that have to keep taking it on and on again until the requested score!

7. Focus/concentration/attention and distractions play a huge role with this kind of tests where you need to be super mechanically capable to multitask and give the feedback that are correct. Otherwise you lose points. Now I understand why some people spend weeks preparing it, but again I think this is the most hideous test that exists. It doesn’t represent your real knowledge of English. iBT is so vague, have holes, that when I talked to some academics many of them told me they hated it. Really.

Finally, I don’t expect high scores, I messed up first two sections that required 100% of concentration, optimum conditions for test taking that I didn’t have. I guess I will never “fit” into desirable candidate for gaining the maximum or close to it, but I know that my English is so damn better than 99% of people who came to take the test. I don’t want to prepare with manuals “how-to” test for dummies. With all respect to those people as I know they practiced for months and I know their speaking English is so poor, but I’m studying and learning (still, ongoing) my English since the age of six, use actively, work and live in English speaking environment, and if test shows the opposite I don’t care.

I just hope those who might care will read this and don’t take for granted my bad scores of iBT TOEFL. Anyways, we’ll see in two weeks.


  1. Moneim Elshobaki says:

    I agree with you. That test does not measure the true ability of its takers.
    Do not worry about reading and listening, it’s luck belive me.
    wait a good score for you.

  2. I get very low scores on the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) needed to study in USA back in the late 6os. I can only imagine that my CV made up for my low scores. I hate force choice tests.

  3. I had to take the TOEFL and the GRE to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. It was still paper-based until the late 1990s or so, when I took them. Though I scored very high, I hardly think the TOEFL needs much prep. Like all standardized tests, it’s not a true determinant of one’s academic abilities, I believe.

  4. Danica says:

    Simon: low scores and look at you now – great professor! I loathe these kind of tests too.

    Alakananda: iBT doesn’t need too much preparation (assuming you really know English) but the form and technical bugs makes it really tricky

  5. Paul says:

    I found your text via google, while I was trying to find out what will happen, if I fail to reach the 109 out of 120 points I need to pursue my graduate studies. And now the amusing coincidence: I am planning to study at the OII. Great to hear that I am not the only one, who thinks this test is not the best way to measure language abilities. I believe that even in my native language I would not score full points. But nevertheless I ll give my very best.
    And another anecdote about the testing conditions:
    I wanted to take the test ten days ago, but due to (worldwide) “connectivity problems” ETS could not run the test software. But instead of sending us home right away, they let us wait for five hours. Within these five hours we were of course not allowed to leave the test center premises. Great, I am now so looking forward to my next test day.

  6. Danica says:

    @Paul Oxford asked from you to have 109 points?!?
    Ah, I heard for that incident with connectivity problems. Hideous. I hope you get the good scores.
    And there is no thing such as coincidence, just serendipities(;

  7. Paul says:

    @ Danica
    well than serendipities if you prefer 😉 (actually I think “Zufallsfund” would be a good German translation)
    Yes, Oxford University asked for the 109 points (the score all Oxford graduates have to achieve, I believe). Did you got your scores already? And I am now working with books like TOEFL for Dummies… just to do something.

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