TOEFL: Are you ‘test-sophisticated’?

Complaints about international test usage from “Third World” countries, based on disadvantaged socio-educational backgrounds tend to be exaggerated, undignified and de-motivating — and increasingly irrelevant as “catch-up time” passes by! However, in defence of the “complainers”, I believe they have a valid case in relation to the various “tests” of acceptability applied by the United States, Britain and other countries to applicants for secondary and tertiary education.


Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is the test of proficiency in the English language which is applied by US testing educational institutions to applicants from countries where English is not the first language. It is reasonable to require basic competency in English.

However, in practice, the application of TOEFL involves a huge bias against all groups which are disadvantaged by lack of contact with facilities to learn English. For example, impoverished urban and rural communities with limited schooling facilities. In this case the unfairness lies in lack of familiarity with the testing situation.
In the US, schoolchildren are familiar with numerous tests administered in timed conditions, often several per week. These experiences, together with specific training applied by the more enlightened teachers, give a huge advantage to the American student, with whom the foreign applicants are compared, because, even assuming the same level of applied English, the student with the best test-taking experience and training will score considerably higher.

The Americans understand test-sophistication bias and, to their credit, they attempt to encourage and facilitate test practice in order to improve the fairness of the selection procedure. Despite these efforts, I have good evidence that even within Zimbabwe there are very large regional discrepancies in test-sophistication, leading to unfair selection in the sense which I have explained.

What to do

By all means feel free to complain about the unfairness described above but, rather than, or in addition to complaining, I suggest that teachers, parents and students themselves should all work towards increasing test-sophistication.

Simple examples

Timed, multiple choice response mode: In the case of each problem, you must choose one correct answer from options a, b, c, d or e. If you choose randomly you have a one in five or 20% chance of choosing the correct answer. Let’s say you have one minute left, and 20 problems unanswered. What should you do? You can carry on working steadily, (but too slowly) at the remaining items or (if there is no “penalty for guessing”) you can quickly mark as your choices, all of the A’s (or B’s or C’s etc). By doing this in the last minute the sophisticated test taker will have a good chance of getting at least two correct by guessing. Two more marks, within a few seconds, and you can carry on working at the remainder until the time is up and alter the answers which were “randomly wrong” if you have time.

“Leaving” the difficult items: Students are often correctly praised for persisting at difficult problems. This attitude must be unlearned by the sophisticated test taker. Let’s say you are faced with a 60-item test, with one hour in which to complete it. You therefore have approximately one minute per item (if all items “score” equally). If you spend five minutes each on three difficult items your maximum marks for these items is three. But you have used 25% of your time and have only 45 minutes left for the remaining 57 problems. If you don’t understand the disadvantage of disproportionate timing, please get someone to work through it with you. Similar reasoning applies to the allocation of time in exams with essay type problems.

These examples should be enough to demonstrate the importance of test-sophistication. As testing takes place during many career paths, you should become sophisticated, even if there seems to be no immediate need to do so!

Reassurances about intelligence

Schools have often used tests to “stream” children into their classes as early as nine or 10 years of age. This is based on the assumption that Johnny will remain in the same position relative to his age group as he progresses through school. Unfortunately, this assumption, research shows, is fundamentally wrong. This is because, as children, we all had differing rates of development, both intellectually and physically. Thus the IQ measured at any stage is a “snapshot” taken in a continuously changing scene. Johnny, who often plays truant from a “disadvantaged” school and has little to learn from his poorly educated siblings and exhausted parents; with insufficient electricity and only ZBC-TV, gets an IQ “score” of 110 at age seven. Unfortunately, he is so disadvantaged that he is very unlikely to retain his relative position in later years. When measured as an adult his tested IQ could be as low as 80, 20 points below the average of 100. Space does not permit detailed discussion of the issues arising from the above example, so please let us “fast track” to further points of emphasis:

IQ tests are, at best, snapshots of performance at a particular stage in the assessee’s development.

Contrary to the beliefs of the early psychologists (eg Cyril Burt, “IQ is innate, general cognitive ability”) IQ tests do not measure the “genotype” (the basic genetic potential) but the “phenotype” which is the outcome of genes plus environment.

School streaming should be a continuous process, if applied at all. Intellectual “elitism” based on tests administered (often not by professional psychologists) at ages 10 or 11 is a disgraceful case of prejudice (unfair pre-judgement!).

The human brain is multifunctional, in multiple locations of the cortex, as demonstrated when parts of the brain have been removed by injury or surgery and functions have been recovered (after re-learning) by other, undamaged parts of the brain. Every communicable person can, with the right combination of assessment, motivation, tuition and opportunity, develop and grow virtually any mental function including memory and recall, “mental arithmetic”, verbal logic, spatial reasoning, reading speed, handwriting speed, creativity, vocabulary and spelling. I include spelling because research has shown remarkable progress in the elimination of “dyslexia” which is so often suggested to students with reading or motivational difficulties as a crutch or as an excuse. If someone criticises your intellect, your marvelous brain entitles you to say to yourself “Bah, humbug!” as you certainly have the potential to improve!

Under Google, Test Sophistication (20 million results), try Anastasi A, Carnegie Foundation, and Erickson M.

Harrison is an industrial psychologist, senior consultant and MD — Human Resources (Pvt) Ltd, an industrial, commercial and agricultural consultancy and training organisation. Phone: 242-700 867, 700 643 or mobile 0772 400 220, e-mail: or, Website: These weekly New Perspectives articles are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society. Mobile: +263 772 382 852 and e-mail address