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How ETS Protects the Integrity of the TOEFL® Test

Prevention. Detection. Communication.

There is significant competition among students applying to academic programs. This can create challenges for academic institutions and other stakeholders, including attempts by test takers to gain an unfair advantage on required tests or falsify score information.

ETS has long been at the forefront of combatting test security concerns. Our strategy is a 3-pronged approach of prevention, detection and communication, which is designed to protect the integrity of test scores.

In addition, the ETS Office of Testing Integrity constantly monitors testing, investigates security issues and strives to ensure score validity worldwide, maintaining its long-standing commitment to reliable and secure test scores.

Prevention — 5 Ways ETS Works to Prevent Breaches of Test Security

ETS has various procedures in place to address test security. These can be seen from test design right through to the score reporting process. Here are some of the ways the integrity of the TOEFL® test is protected from beginning to end.

1. Using the Highest Standards to Create Test Content

As a not-for-profit research and assessment organization, ETS is committed to the highest standards in developing test content, supported by more than 240 peer-reviewed research reports, books, journal articles and book chapters. Watch our video, How ETS Develops Test Questions (Flash), to see all the steps we take to develop and review each new question before it can appear on an ETS test.

The TOEFL iBT® test pioneered the use of integrated test questions in a large-scale language assessment. Integrated questions require test takers to demonstrate how well they can actually use English to communicate in the classroom by combining their language skills in reading, listening, speaking and writing. These integrated test questions not only provide important information on language ability, but their design also deters memorization of text to fit into responses, making these questions less amenable to coaching.

2. Establishing Secure Test Centers

Test administrations occur at Certified Test Administration Sites (CTAS). Each CTAS undergoes a screening process through ETS designed to ensure secure testing.

  • Test center applicants receive an initial pre-qualification review to determine if the facilities meet security and CTAS technical requirements, and to obtain verifiable references.
  • ETS uses the same internet security protocols as those used by major financial institutions for secure transmissions. The communication channel uses state-of-the-art encryption, and if a transmission is altered or disrupted, our software will detect it.
  • Test content that is downloaded to a test center computer is encrypted and cannot be accessed until the actual test administration begins.

At the beginning of each test administration, the test software automatically closes all non-TOEFL iBT windows or applications, including instant messaging (IM). It closes any applications that try to open during the test and then automatically logs the incident. The software also locks the desktop, suppressing key combinations so the test taker cannot switch to any other application.

3. Training of Test Center Administrators

Test center staff are thoroughly trained to manage test administrations. As such, they are required to pass a certification exam to demonstrate their knowledge of test delivery, as well as testing policies and procedures, before they can serve as Test Center Administrators. Training includes the following security-related topics:

  • Identification requirements
  • Check-in procedures on the day of the test
  • Security of test data and computers used for testing
  • Test center layout and required distance between test takers
  • Monitoring of test takers during the test

ETS provides a Policies, Practices and Procedures Manual to test center supervisors. All policies and procedures in the Manual must be followed.

ETS conducts announced and unannounced audits of test sites, as well as visits by mystery shoppers, to observe and confirm that ETS standards are being properly applied at test centers around the world.

4. Instituting and Enforcing Test Taker Rules and Requirements

On or before the day of the test, test takers have to meet several security requirements. These requirements may include:

  • Showing ETS-approved forms of identification that contain a photograph and signature; some locations require an ID with an electronic chip
  • Providing handwriting and signature samples
  • Providing biometric data, including speech and photo identification
  • Fingerprinting/thumbprinting
  • Signing an agreement stating that they have read and will adhere to all policies and procedures
  • Having their photos taken at the center and embedded into their score reports
  • Passing through security wanding when entering the testing room, to detect unauthorized items
  • Being monitored via video surveillance

After checking in at the test center, test takers:

  • Are prohibited from bringing items into the testing room that could be used as testing aids or to collect, share or collaborate on test content. Only a test taker's identification documents are allowed in the testing room.
  • Have no access to personal items during the test or during breaks. Personal items include electronic devices, books, handbags and backpacks, all of which are stored separately from the test takers to maintain security.
  • Have their identity verified by the test center administrator before starting the test.
  • Present their identification document(s) to the test center administrator to have their identity verified when they return from breaks.

5. Maintaining the Quality of Scoring and Score Reporting

To further safeguard against test takers obtaining unfair advantages, no scoring is done at the test center. ETS separates the scoring process from the testing process, eliminating many security issues that would arise from giving test administrators access to scoring tools. Also, test administrators cannot be directly involved in English-language instruction or test preparation, and they cannot administer the test to an individual where it could present the appearance or actual possibility of a conflict of interest.

Because ETS separates scoring from test administration, raters receive spoken and written responses from test takers worldwide; there is no possibility they will know the individuals whose responses they are given to score. See our scoring page to read more about how ETS scores the TOEFL test.

Another way ETS works to protect the integrity of scores is through the security measures implemented for paper score reports. There are 2 types of TOEFL score reports issued on paper:

  • The official score report, which is sent directly from ETS to the institutions or agencies designated by the test taker. Prior to test day, test takers can select up to 4 score recipients at no charge. They can also order additional score reports after the test for a fee of US$20 per report.
  • The test taker score report, which is sent from ETS to test takers who request a paper copy in addition to their online scores.

ETS uses security paper for TOEFL score reports, including the following features:

  • The words "ETS® Security Guard" appear in the upper right-hand corner, printed with a special heat-sensitive ink. To activate this security feature, apply heat to the text, either by rubbing it or blowing on it, and the ETS Security Guard text will disappear. This feature will not work if the score report has been photocopied or scanned.
  • Score reports generated after August 1, 2019, will have a new security feature — an orange bar with dots that make it impossible to photocopy or scan the report. An attempt to copy or scan it results in a solid black page.
  • There is also a Laser Lock on the face of the paper. This makes it difficult to remove toner from laser- or ion-printed documents.

Detection — ETS is Vigilant in Identifying and Taking Action against Test Taker Misconduct

Even with the most stringent security prevention measures in place, some test takers will try to gain an unfair advantage on the test. ETS investigates all reported incidents of misconduct, which can include photographic review, handwriting analysis and voice biometric analysis. The results of an investigation may lead ETS to cancel the scores or ban the test taker from future ETS tests.

ETS uses biometric voice identification software similar to the technologies used in the banking, law enforcement and healthcare industries. This technology helps ETS identify suspected impersonation and cancel those TOEFL iBT scores before they are reported.

ETS closely monitors all test centers and tracks all security incidents. If it is determined that a test center does not meet ETS standards, the center is closed. ETS also conducts random inspections of test centers as well as audits at centers where concerns have been raised through supervisor reports, tips or test taker complaints. In some cases, ETS collaborates with local and national law enforcement agencies to prosecute professional impersonation rings.

Monitoring Score Statistics

ETS reviews and analyzes scores after each test session using statistical analysis methods to help identify invalid scores. The ETS Statistical Analysis team monitors score trends by test center, country and region.

  • System-generated irregularity reports are reviewed after each test administration.
  • Site historical performance data is maintained to identify any discrepancies that need to be addressed.
  • Sites are subject to quality audits and third-party observation.

Watch Psychometrics at ETS: The Science of Assessment (Flash) to learn more about ETS's Statistical Analysis, Data Analysis & Psychometric Research areas.

Communication — Keeping Score Users Informed Is Our Priority

ETS works very closely with the institutions and agencies we serve around the world. When scores are canceled, ETS informs institutions that have the test taker's score report that the scores have been canceled. In addition, every concern regarding test results reported by an institution or agency will be investigated.

In the academic community, we are all dealing with a world where the motivation and capability to commit academic and admissions cheating is on the rise. ETS will continue adopting best practices and creating new technologies to prevent and detect breaches of test security.

ETS is committed to giving you results you can trust.

For additional security questions or concerns, please email or call the Security Hotline at 1-800-750-6991 (toll free for test takers in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Canada) or +1-609-406-5430 (all other locations).

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