Correction to This Article
A Sept. 18 Metro article about the Test of English as a Foreign Language incorrectly implied that a senior at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn had not yet taken the test. Qiuzhe Ji took it in West Virginia on Sept. 9.

Students Vexed by Glitch-Laden Test

Qiuzhe Ji, a senior at Stone Bridge High School, is determined to take the TOEFL, regardless of testing snags.
Qiuzhe Ji, a senior at Stone Bridge High School, is determined to take the TOEFL, regardless of testing snags. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

Qiuzhe Ji, a senior at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, has a 3.81 GPA, loads of extracurricular activities and a strong 680 score on the math section of the SAT. It's a portfolio he hopes will win him early admission to the University of Virginia.

But he worries about his verbal SAT scores. A native of China who moved to Virginia three years ago, he scored 500 on critical reading and 520 on writing, with 800 the highest possible score for each section. Ji's college counselor advised him to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language to supplement the SAT.

The TOEFL is a four-decade-old assessment created by the Educational Testing Service that helps give college admissions officers a more comprehensive picture of how nonnative speakers might function in an English-speaking classroom. But since ETS moved the TOEFL online last fall, with an expanded network of testing centers, students and college counselors from Bangkok to Ashburn have reported many glitches.

Some students describe a shortage of seats in testing centers. There also are reports of technical snags that have led to last-minute cancellations of scheduled tests. With college application deadlines looming this fall and winter, some counselors are concerned that the kinks might not be worked out.

Ji's experience is a case in point.

Ji, who also goes by Alex, tried to sign up for the TOEFL in June. He found that the earliest opening was in Baltimore on July 29. He drove more than two hours that day to the testing site, he said, only to learn the test had to be canceled because of technical problems. He rescheduled for August at a site in Howard County. That appointment also was canceled in advance, he said, but he was not notified. He was rescheduled automatically for a test in College Park on Nov. 10 -- nine days after his early application deadline for U-Va.

Ji, 18, said he's determined to take the TOEFL regardless.

"They are not just providing a service of testing," he said. "They are providing the ability to go to college."

The new online format of the TOEFL is designed to increase, not reduce, access to the test, ETS spokesman Thomas Ewing said.

"We're bringing on centers as fast as humanly possible," Ewing said. It's not an easy process, he said, because it requires advance troubleshooting to avoid technical glitches. So far, he said, problems have been rare.

Worldwide, ETS has set up about 2,300 testing sites within the past year, up from about 600. It aims to eventually have 3,000 in 105 countries, including 29 countries where the TOEFL was not offered previously. There are 19 testing sites in the Washington region, up from 11 about a year ago. But ETS is seeking to open more to meet demand.

The expansion of testing sites is crucial because the online test is offered only 30 times a year. Previously, students had much more flexibility in when they could take the TOEFL.

Of 800,000 students who took the test last year, more than 110,000 were international students living in the United States. Many are in boarding schools. Increasing numbers, particularly in the Washington area, are immigrants.

Carolyn Lindsay, a veteran guidance counselor at the District's Bell Multicultural High School, which has a large foreign-born population, has long recommended the test to her students. She said her students never had any logistical problems until last year. Several students, she said, preregistered last year to cut the $150 testing fee in half. But they later found that the most convenient testing dates at nearby centers were booked, she said.

Lindsay said she's waiting for fall SAT results. If her students improve their verbal scores, she said she won't advise them this year to take the TOEFL.

"I would like them to take the TOEFL because it gives my students an advantage," Lindsay said. But she added that she worried about whether the expense was worth it if the test administration proves to be unreliable. "That type of money is not something for them to play with," she said.

Five students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School last year had similar trouble registering for a fee reduction, according to Nancy Leopold, director of Montgomery County-based CollegeTracks, an organization that helps students apply for college. Ultimately, she said, four of them were not able to take the test in time for their college application deadlines.

Kari Kelley, career center specialist at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, said that the new online test registration is more difficult for some students.

"It's a much more cumbersome process than the SAT registration," she said, "and you are dealing with kids for whom English is not their first language, so they are even less adept at navigating that process."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company