Why and How ETS Questions TOEFL® Scores
The procedures and options described below apply to score validity cases only and do not apply to testing irregularities,1 discrepancies in test taker identification or test taker misconduct.
As a matter of fairness to test takers, educational institutions, government agencies, professional organizations, or any entity that ETS recognizes as an authorized user of TOEFL® scores in making important decisions about test takers, ETS reviews test scores that may be invalid. This page explains why and how ETS questions the validity of test scores when concerns arise.
Most test scores are reported by ETS without any question regarding their validity. When ETS is concerned that test scores may be invalid, ETS invites the test taker to submit information that addresses these concerns. ETS also makes available 3 options for resolution, which are described in detail under "Options Leading to Resolution" below.
The test taker may:
- authorize ETS to cancel the questioned scores and take a future test without charge
- authorize ETS to cancel the questioned scores and receive a refund
- submit the matter to arbitration (for test takers testing in the United States at the time of testing)
The test taker has the right to initiate legal action. However, the filing of a lawsuit will not necessarily delay the cancellation of scores that ETS determines are invalid.
1 "Testing irregularities" refers to problems with the administration of a test. When they occur, they may affect an individual or groups of test takers. Such problems include, but are not limited to, administrative errors (e.g., improper timing, improper seating, improper proctoring, technical difficulties, defective materials, defective equipment or the failure of testing staff to comply with test administration policies or procedures) and disruptions of test administrations.
Why ETS Questions Test Scores
ETS tests are widely viewed as accurate assessments of the abilities they are designed to measure. As a result, the millions of people who take ETS tests each year and the thousands of score recipients who receive test scores count on the validity of the test scores that ETS reports. This is why ETS questions test scores when it is believed they may be invalid.
Acceptance of ETS Policies
ETS strives to administer tests under secure, standard conditions that afford test takers equivalent opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. During the registration process, upon arrival at the test center and before the start of the testing session, test takers are required to signify their agreement to accept ETS policies and procedures. As part of that agreement, they acknowledge that ETS has the right to review scores of questionable validity and to cancel scores when there is substantial evidence that they are invalid.
ETS recognizes the importance of treating test takers fairly and has designed procedures with fairness in mind. Communications in cases of questioned scores, including the information provided below, are designed to help test takers understand ETS procedures for reviewing scores so that questions about score validity can be resolved as quickly and equitably as possible.
The test taker's score record and the documents completed that are retained at ETS may be released to any entity that ETS recognizes as an authorized recipient of scores, including without limitation (1) any entity to which ETS reports scores at the test taker's request, (2) any government agency, including agencies responsible for administration or enforcement of U.S. criminal and/or immigration laws, and (3) pursuant to a U.S. or foreign subpoena or required by applicable law.
ETS may be required by a score recipient or other third party to release the names of test takers whose scores have been questioned, whether or not these scores are canceled and the reason for the score cancellation. The information that may be released includes, but is not limited to, identifying information, details of any test security investigation and details regarding the test center where the test was taken. Typically, the reasons for the disclosure of test taker information include score verification, test security investigations and investigations by score recipients of possible unlawful activity.
The ETS Score Review Process
Over the years, ETS has developed procedures to review the validity of test scores. Unless ETS finds substantial evidence that test scores are invalid, the scores are reported. If ETS has concerns about the validity of test scores, the test taker is offered an opportunity to respond and select an option for resolving the matter. If the matter cannot be resolved, ETS will cancel the questioned scores.
If before, during or after a review of questionable scores, ETS finds that misconduct has occurred in connection with a test, ETS may treat the matter under its misconduct procedures. In that event, the options available in connection with Score Invalidity reviews will not be available even if those options were previously offered.
How Questions Arise
Questions about the validity of test scores may arise from:
- inquiries from score recipients about the validity of particular scores (such inquiries often arise from inconsistencies among different measures of a test taker's abilities)
- communications from test center administrators or other test takers
- other internal and external sources of information
Although ETS considers information received from these sources, ETS does not cancel scores unless it is determined that there is substantial evidence that the scores are invalid.
Some Types of Information that ETS Considers When Reviewing Scores
Information, including but not limited to, indicating that:
- a test taker may not have worked independently
- test scores are inconsistent with previous test scores or other measures of the test taker's abilities
- test content or answers may have been available to the test taker before or during the test administration
- an external source has provided such information to ETS
Comparisons of, including but not limited to:
- a test taker's answers with those of other test takers
- a test taker's scores with previous scores, or scores on different sections of the test
- the handwriting from documents completed on test day with handwriting on other documents
- identification documents presented by the test taker on test day with other records
- the information on test day documents with other records
- answers changed to match those of another test taker
- biometric data
No Action Taken During Review
When questions are raised before test scores have been reported, ETS does not report the scores to score recipients unless and until concerns about their validity have been resolved. On the other hand, if previously reported scores are in question, ETS does not notify score recipients unless and until it has decided to cancel the scores after the review and resolution process has been completed, or after the test taker has failed to comply with deadlines for submitting information or exercising an option.
Two-stage Review Process
ETS will not cancel test scores without substantial evidence that they are invalid. To ensure fairness, the review process involves 2 stages², with different sets of personnel responsible for each.
The Initial Review
The ETS Office of Testing Integrity (OTI) is responsible for the initial review of scores. OTI staff consider whether, based on information available to ETS, there appears to be substantial evidence of invalidity. In each case the OTI prepares a file, called a Score Review Summary, which contains information and documentation relating to its concerns.
If OTI determines that there is not substantial evidence of invalidity, it terminates the review and sends any scores not already reported to the test taker and designated score recipients. Any score recipients who have raised questions about the scores are then advised that ETS found no score validity issues that would cause the scores to be canceled.
If OTI staff finds substantial evidence that scores may be invalid, they notify the test taker and offer a single opportunity to submit additional information that addresses ETS's concerns. Upon receipt of such information, OTI staff refer the Score Review Summary and any additional information supplied by the test taker to the ETS Board of Review for consideration and decision/recommendation. If the test taker elects not to respond by the expiration of the time period indicated in ETS's letter, the test taker's scores will be canceled without further notice. In this case, there will be no review by the Board.
Test takers are also offered the options to cancel the scores and take a future test without charge, or to cancel the scores and receive a refund.
2 When there are concerns regarding plagiarism in the Writing section, the scores from the test administration are automatically canceled.
Submitting Additional Information
Before questioned scores are submitted to the Board of Review, the OTI provides test takers with an opportunity to submit information addressing ETS's concerns. Test takers may submit any information about their test experience that is relevant. For example:
- Authenticated original documents written prior to the questioned test administration may address questions about handwriting differences.
- In the case of a physical impairment or other disability, the test taker may submit a doctor's certificate or other relevant information.
The Board of Review considers all such information, and in some cases it resolves ETS's concerns.
On the other hand, the Board of Review gives little weight to information that does not specifically address ETS's questions about score validity. For example, character references or testimonial letters do not explain handwriting differences or unusual agreement between the answers of 2 or more test takers.
The Second Stage of Review
The Board of Review is an impartial group of ETS professional staff. Board of Review members do not review scores from testing programs for which they have managerial or administrative responsibility. The Board meets in rotating panels to review cases. If even a single panel member concludes there is not substantial evidence of invalidity, the review is terminated and the scores are reported.
The Board of Review considers the contents of the Score Review Summary (which, in discrepant-handwriting cases, includes a report from an external document examiner retained by ETS) and any information submitted by the test taker. If the Board of Review finds that there is substantial evidence of invalidity, OTI notifies the test taker. ETS offers options before cancelling the test taker's scores at this stage, as explained below under "Options Leading to Resolution." As discussed above, cancellation of scores is still an option.
Options Leading to Resolution
Option 1 — Test Taker May Cancel the Scores and Take a Future Test without Charge
A test taker may ask ETS to cancel the questioned scores and take a future test without charge. ETS then removes the scores from the test taker's record. If the scores have already been reported, ETS notifies score recipients or other third parties that the test taker's scores have been canceled.
Option 2 — Test Taker May Cancel the Scores and Receive a Refund
A test taker may ask ETS to cancel the questioned scores and receive a refund of the test fee. ETS then removes the scores from the test taker's record and refunds any applicable test fees paid by the test taker. If the scores have been previously reported, ETS notifies score recipients or other third parties that the test taker's scores have been canceled.
Option 3— Arbitration³
A test taker may ask to have a third-party arbitrator, appointed by the American Arbitration Association, determine whether ETS has substantial evidence to support the cancellation of the questioned test scores.
3 The arbitration option is available only to test takers testing in the United States at the time of testing.
A test taker electing this option must sign a standard ETS Arbitration Agreement that spells out the procedures that will apply in the arbitration. Arbitration is intended only as an independent review of ETS's decision that there is substantial evidence to support cancellation. This review is based upon the documents alone. As a result, the arbitrator will review only the information that had been submitted to the ETS Board of Review when it decided to cancel the scores. Therefore, test takers may not submit any information in the arbitration that was not submitted to the Board of Review within the time provided.
ETS pays the cost of arbitration.
Questions about Options
Test takers who have questions about any of these options are invited to contact OTI (see "Contact Information" below).
When ETS cancels test scores, the scores are no longer reportable. Any applicable test fee the test taker paid is refunded, or the test taker may take a future test without charge. If scores have not already been reported to any score recipients, ETS takes no further action. If the scores have been reported, ETS notifies the score recipients or other third parties that previously received the scores that they have been canceled.
Advice from Others
Test takers may seek advice from a trusted individual concerning ETS's test score review procedures. OTI staff members are available to discuss the ETS score review process with the test taker or any individual who has been asked by the test taker to help resolve these questions. Test takers must give ETS written permission to talk to anyone.
Please contact the Office of Testing Integrity (OTI) if you have any questions regarding questioned test scores:
- 1-800-750-6991 Toll free in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Canada)
+1-609-406-5430 (all other locations)
- Office of Testing Integrity
Princeton, NJ 08541