Understanding TOEFL Test Scores; Training of ETS Human Raters

As you prepare for your upcoming TOEFL exam, you need to understand about your TOEFL score you will get and about how the human raters will grade your speaking and writing responses.

Your TOEFL iBT Test Scores

Your score on the TOEFL exam is based on how well you do when answering the reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections. In order to get an official score, you must answer at least one question during the reading and listening parts of the exam. In addition, you must complete at least one of the speaking and writing tasks. Combined to a total of 120 points, the reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections are scaled from 0 – 30 points.

After taking the TOEFL exam, you will also be e-mailed a score report reflecting your academic English language proficiency and explaining the kinds of academic tasks that you can typically do within your reported test score range. This information can be especially useful if you need to re-take the TOEFL exam because the score report will tell you where you need to spend additional time in order to increase your overall score.

Contrary to what a lot of students believe, there is no such thing as a passing or failing TOEFL score. Individual universities and colleges set their own standards regarding TOEFL scores. For example, California State University, San Bernardino has set standards of 61 and 79-80 for undergraduate and graduate study. Conversely, Duke University has a requirement of 100 or higher for those undergraduate students desiring to enter their institution. Duke has a lower TOEFL score standard of 90 for graduate students. Your TOEFL score is valid for two years, and you can take the test as often as you like so long as it is not more than once in a 12-day period.

Some students, unfortunately, memorize responses to the writing tasks, and this template-driven writing does not always reflect students’ true writing competencies. Thus, to guard against this, ETS also uses human scorers to evaluate the content and meaning of the ideas that you express. In other words, a combination of automated and human scorers will make sure there is consistency and accuracy in the scoring of the writing tasks that you submit.

The Training of ETS Human Raters

The human raters who score your writing and speaking tasks need to pass a certification test. Moreover, before they score a speaking or writing practice test each day, they familiarize themselves with the task, they get guidance of how to score the task, and they get practice scoring a range of responses of students with varying levels of English proficiency. Finally, the human raters who score your speaking and writing tasks are observed by ETS leaders. For example, every time human raters score a new speaking or writing question, ETS’ scoring leaders will double check these raters to make sure that they are scoring the tasks fairly and accurately.

Rules for Rating

ETS does not allow your speaking or writing to be scored at the test site. Therefore, to ensure consistent, accurate, and fair scoring, your speaking and writing tasks are scored through a centralized network of human raters. The human raters are diverse and can come from many countries, and they will not come from the country of the test-taker who submitted the speaking and writing tasks. For example, let’s say that you take the TOEFL exam in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Your speaking and writing human raters who will score your tasks could be living in the United States, France, England, and Mexico. These human raters will score your responses anonymously so that they can maintain their objectivity.

Implications for your Speaking and Writing Practice

Since the iBT human raters will be using ETS speaking and writing rubrics when they score your tasks, make sure that you are VERY familiar with these scoring rubrics.

Do not try to score your own speaking and writing practice tests that you complete. It is better if you can get an ESL/EFL teacher, TOEFL tutor, online TOEFL speaking and writing specialist, or some other trained ESL specialist to read, listen to, and score your responses. Make sure that they use the official TOEFL speaking and writing rubrics to score your practice tests.

Get second and even third opinions on the quality, content, and accuracy of your speaking and writing practice tests that you submit. Remember that ETS uses human raters in different locations in order to objectively score your speaking and writing tasks. Make sure you do the same. Make it clear to whoever is helping you that you want them to honestly and objectively score your speaking and writing according to the official speaking and writing rubrics of the TOEFL exam.

Make sure you do not use templates or any other memorized responses to the speaking and writing tasks because ETS human raters can recognize that, and it will lower your score.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff, founder, owner, and materials writer for “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT”