Wednesday, January 04, 2012

TOEFL scores

This is my first attempt at using a blogging app for the iPad.  Let's see how it goes....

Over the last few weeks, I've received several emails from foreign students who are would-be applicants to Rice graduate programs, asking me whether I'll be looking for students next year.  In these same emails, the students point out that their TOEFL scores fall below Rice's official cutoff of 90, and ask if they can get in anyway.  For some I know that cutoffs like this seem unfair - that only physics ability should matter in terms of getting into a grad program.  However, we don't set these things just to be arbitrary.  Historically, students who cannot meet that language test criterion have a very hard time - they can't generally be put in front of undergrads to teach, they have difficulty in communicating with their instructors, and often the language barrier is sufficiently severe that there is a tendency to hang out with other students who speak their native language rather than to speak English (a situation that can prolong rather than address the issue).  I have enormous respect for someone motivated and bright enough to go abroad to a foreign country for grad school in a non-native language - I couldn't have done it - but the language rules are there for rational reasons.


Anonymous said...

Even though you're argument is good, in practice, many students who meet the minimum scores in their TOEFL still cannot communicate appropriately enough to teach a class but they are still accepted into graduate programs in the US. Either they are cheating on their TOEFLs or the cutoff score is not high enough. Either way, those students that manage to get in go on to do a miserable job when they are TAs, tend to join research groups with profs that are from their same country and therefore speak their native language (or that have many students from their country). And most of these students will do just fine once they finish their PhDs.

I am not saying that students with even lower scores should get necessarily accepted, but to argue that Universities or individual departments are setting the cutoff for the reasons you mentioned is just not true in practice.

K-19 said...

I agree with anonymous - most students who do have the scores also don't have the English skills necessary for graduate school. I wonder if people have done studies between the TOEFL score v. actual English skills measured in person and not by the testing company.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, K-19 - I hear what you're saying. If anything, we'd do a better educational service for our undergrad (and grad) students in the long run if we raised the TOEFL cutoff, also factored in the GRE verbal, and frankly did interviews. However, *not* having some kind of cutoff would be very bad.

Two other points. First, I'm not trying to single out foreign students per se - I'm often ashamed and embarrassed at the English proficiency of some native-born English-speakers! Poor writing skills and poor grammar abound. Second, it's interesting to see that there now seems to be (based on my anecdotal observations) much better consistency between TOEFL and GRE verbal scores than back in the days of old testing styles (say a decade ago, when sometimes you'd see someone with a poor TOEFL and a perfect verbal, or vice versa - things that would really make you wonder about integrity of the exam process).

Igor said...

This is an important issue. At my institution, I have heard stories of Profs who supervise students in their own native language. When facing a committee, these students have major issues. Furthermore, I have personally witnessed a TA in a laboratory course instructing undergraduates students in his own language. I don't know if this kind of thing is simply overlooked or tolerated here, but it should not be.

grumpy said...

I think cutoffs are reasonable.

However I fail to see why, in any isolated instance, it's wrong for students/profs/TAs to communicate in languages other than english.

Obviously scientists need to bcome well versed in english in order to interact with the international community, but just because you study at a US institution doesn't mean you have to *exclusively* communicate in english does it?

TOEFL Test said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TOEFL Test said...

I am afraid the situation is as you mentioned. Students with weak knowledge of English will face a lot of difficulties in their learning process. I, as a foreign student in UH, encourage foreign students to work on their language skills with the use of websites and books such as to come to class fully prepared instead of looking for a kind of TOEFL waiver or entering with low grades.

Anonymous said...

"often the language barrier is sufficiently severe that there is a tendency to hang out with other students who speak their native language rather than to speak English (a situation that can prolong rather than address the issue)"

I would posit that this may not be a particularly useful argument, as pretty much anyone anywhere reverts to their native language when possible since it makes non-technical communications more efficient in so many situations. Rice's physics department was balkanized into Chinese and other to a large extent when I was there.

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