TOEFL – An Experience with Something That Should Have Been Easy

Our author Vanessa explains TOEFL – but more importantly, she rants about why taking it should have been easy, but wasn’t: After her test was cancelled, an Odyssey of e-mails and complaints ensued.

 

What is the TOEFL Test?

The TOEFL is an international test to assess someone’s skills in the English language. You can either take the written test, or the iBT, which is an internet-based test you will take on a computer at a test center. Usually, the TOEFL consists of four categories: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. To complete each section, you will have around 60 minutes. Thus, the test takes around three to four hours.

Which organization offers the TOEFL test?

The TOEFL – because it is an international test – is generally accepted by a broad variety of institutions worldwide. However, it is organized by a U.S. organization called ETS (which is also responsible for a variety of other tests including the GRE, the TOEIC and the PRAXIS). Fortunately, if you want to take the TOEFL test, you don’t have to travel to the U.S. to take it, you can register for a local test center. Especially in Germany, there are several test centers all over the country. The closest one to Erlangen is in Nuremberg, carried out by the language center of the FAU.

Why take a TOEFL test?

If you don’t plan on studying abroad or continuing graduate studies in a subject that is only taught in English, you usually don’t have to take a language test. TOEFL is expensive and the test scores are only valid for two years. Thus, if you don’t have to take it to get accepted at a university – don’t take it. However, if you want to study in the U.S. or at other institutions around the world (take for example the University of Vienna in Austria), or if you want to apply for a scholarship you will be required to hand in scores of an international language test, such as the TOEFL or the IELTS.

Why am I mad at ETS?

As I want to apply for a scholarship for a master’s degree in the U.S., I have to take the TOEFL test (or an equivalent). I registered for a test on June 13 in the language center of the FAU in Nuremberg. Of course, I knew that lots of tests had been cancelled due to Covid-19. But I was informed that if my test were to be cancelled I would receive a notification, so that I would have enough time left to reschedule the test.

I did not receive a notification about a cancellation. So, when it was time for me to take the test, I showed up at the test center on time. Several other people (around 20) from several locations throughout Bavaria arrived shortly before and after me as well. Seeing so many people waiting at the language center made me feel better. I was convinced that the test hadn’t been cancelled.

That was before we were left waiting in front of the language center, no one showing up, no one answering the phone. The ETS support center was closed, even though most of their tests are taken on Saturdays. We had been waiting for one and a half hours until we collectively decided to leave.

Now, I am not angry and annoyed because the test had been cancelled. Of course, this was unfortunate, but especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, stuff like this could happen.

I was angry and annoyed because some of the people needed the test scores a few weeks later for applications, and because some of the people had travelled a long distance to take the test. Another point that made me angry when I heard about it was that a young man I talked to told me that his test had been cancelled for the third time now. And the first one hadn’t even been cancelled due to Covid-19.

But I still was convinced that it simply had been a miscommunication or mistake of ETS and the local test center. Maybe the system of ETS hadn’t registered that the test center in Nuremberg was closed. We decided to keep in touch and complain to ETS, mainly about the fact that they didn’t notify us about the cancellation and thus making rescheduling for us impossible.

Now, if that hadn’t been annoying enough, two days later I realized that actually talking to ETS was way more complicated and frustrating than the cancelled test.

First, I tried to reschedule my test via Prometric (the organization responsible for all test centers in Europe). Apparently, my surname and registration number were invalid. Then I contacted Prometric via email, explaining my problem and asking them to reschedule my exam. I did the same with ETS. ETS replied but only asked me for further information and then never answered again. Prometric hadn’t replied until over a week later. And then the only answer I got was that they weren’t responsible for this problem and that I had to contact ETS.

I had tried to. At that point, I had sent another email to ETS, explaining my problem again. After that I tried to contact them via their live support chat. I waited four hours in line, and then I was kicked out and was asked to try again during their opening times. So, I tried again during their opening times, this time ‘only’ waiting for one and a half hours. I explained my problem – again – to the agent, but the only response I got was that the website hadn’t announced the test as cancelled and thus I had officially taken the TOEFL. They couldn’t help me. The agent told me to call the headquarters in the U.S.

I’m a student. I can call numbers in Europe. But calling a U.S. number would cost a horrendous amount of money.

I wrote another email to ETS Support, explaining everything that had happened so far. After receiving their response, I am convinced that they don’t take the time to actually read the emails with complaints and problems they are receiving. Why? Well, they responded by telling me that I should contact the TOEFL Score support if I wanted to get my scores from a test from November 2019.

A test in 2019 that I have never taken. I hadn’t even registered for a test previous to 2020.

I was frustrated and was at a loss at what to do.

At that point the FAU comes in: To prove that I had not taken a test on June 13 I contacted the language center to ask them for a simple confirmation that there had been no TOEFL test at their test center on June 13, 2020. Their answer was ridiculous. As Prometric before them, they referred to ETS and stated that they could not give me any information concerning that matter. I only asked for a confirmation that there was no TOEFL test. One sentence would have been enough. But for whatever reason they refused.

So, I was getting very frustrated. I was helpless, I couldn’t prove that I had not taken the test because it was cancelled, and no one – neither the local test center, Prometric, nor ETS – were willing to help me.

My next step would have been to contact the management.

That is when I had the probably best idea: Twitter.

It is social media. I could complain publicly as long as ETS had an account. And they have a twitter account. And on their twitter account they are promoting how willing to help they are if any test takers are experiencing problems due to Covid-19. Well, I certainly had made a very different experience. And I told them. Surprisingly, within an hour they responded and asked me to elaborate on my problem via direct messages.

I did.

I didn’t trust them, of course. Due to the negative experience of getting rejected by their support center for almost two weeks, my hopes weren’t very high. I didn’t expect them to help me. I was prepared to contact their management.

However, two hours after I talked to them via twitter, I received an email with a link to reschedule my exam for free and an acknowledgment of the cancelled exam.

Conclusion

I don’t know what went wrong and I am sure that there are hundreds of people who have experienced ETS and TOEFL in a different way and thus have positive impressions of it. I can only speak from my own experience and perspective. But I still think that an international organization which is highly valued by universities and institutions all over the world, should not treat its customers in the way I have been treated. Thus, my recommendation for everyone who has to take a language test is: Take the IELTS, or any equivalent of the TOEFL. Dealing with cancelled tests at ETS is a pain. I don’t know if the other organizations are any better, but I would not recommend ETS. Sadly, I have to take the GRE test as well. It is only offered by ETS, so I still have to deal with them for the next few months.

Personally, I think that it is sad for an international organization to only recognize and acknowledge their customer’s struggles once they are publicly contacted or called out via social media.

 

by Vanessa Pohl

Picture from Pixabay