From its conception in 1962, passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or the TOEFL, has become standard procedure for those looking to pursue higher education in English-speaking countries. But what exactly does passing this test entail? Contrary to what one may think, it’s not English proficiency – it’s conformity to elitism.

Structurally, the TOEFL is a test segmented into four sections: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. The former two are in multiple-choice format and assessed by machines. The writing and speaking are based on prompts and judged according to a rubric. Because these tests measure for the skills one acquires through schooling, they prove to highlight the differences posed by educational discrimination. Standardized testing mainly advertises itself as the outcome of a seemingly-objective, meritocratic system, designed to award those who put in the most effort; however, this is not the case.

Optimal performance comes through good test-taking skills specific to the test being taken, not actual levels of academic prowess. Unfortunately, the means for building these skills are biased towards those born into the educational systems of native English-speaking countries that have access to these resources. This is ironic, because these are the same countries that require international applicants to break through quantitative measures of English ability to be considered for admission.

The TOEFL is only one of many mechanisms that funnel into the multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry. Test companies are, first and foremost, for-profit corporations. The TOEFL exam costs over $200 USD to take once, the score being valid for two years. However, the products companies offer consist not only the test but also the additional program supplements meant to help students do well. Additionally, bear in mind that international students are meant to take the TOEFL in addition to other tests required of regular applicants, such as the SAT and ACT. Testing companies take advantage of the desperation of the international applicant to make money.

SAT Scores by Family Income | The Washington Post

One would only need to look at standardized testing results as a whole to see how the test plays into inequality. According to a 2014 study by The Washington Post, students of higher-income families have been proven to outrank their peers by around 200 points on the reading and writing section of the SAT. This has been a recurring trend throughout the years. Suspiciously enough, the College Board has failed to release SAT scores by income statistics for 2017 and 2018, hinting that they may be trying to suppress this information. This only goes to prove that standardized tests not only favor those of high socioeconomic status, but also enable those privileged enough to have been born in these countries to have an easier time getting into tertiary educational institutions.

Some may argue that international students are victimizing themselves and could avoid the issue by making use of local opportunities available to them. But that only avoids the problem and doesn’t address the underlying issue of elitism. The unsurpassable number opportunities available in the Western world simply cannot be dismissed. American universities, for instance, have come to be renowned as the best worldwide. With top-notch facilities, high-quality instructors, and curriculum flexibility, entrance to these educational institutions has become indicative of one’s success. As such, they have come to attract global prospects from a myriad cultural backgrounds. The U.S. has the largest number of international students in tertiary programs of any country, with around 1.1 million students. However, international students only comprise around 5% of its entire student pool. The four other nations whose universities require proof of English proficiency – Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand – share in this high regard.

This makes the high-stakes aspect of these tests all the more absurd – those that most need to score well are the ones least equipped to get it. The fact that standardized tests are needed in the first place, in fact, only goes to show an attachment to a racist past.

After all, standardized tests were first founded by xenophobes. Lewis Terman, an American psychologist, was one of the key figures in standardized test development. He had drawn inspiration from Frenchman Alfred Binet’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, and altered it to fit American protocols, creating the Stanford-Binet IQ test in 1916. This was during a point in history when the eugenics movement was flourishing in America, Terman being one of many professionals in the field of the ideology that IQ was linked to genetics rather than social status. It is difficult to detach from the test’s problematic history when aspects such as class divide, segregation, and genetics still factor into taking it.

Further exacerbating this, this is what admissions at the University of Chicago states regarding qualifying conditions in which English proficiency requirements are waived for international applicants:

“Students who are natives of or who have studied English in other countries (for example, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.) are not exempt from the English language requirement.”

Institutions are going out of their way to call out nations that have proven relatively-high levels of English proficiency – all of which, uncoincidentally, are former colonies of a native English-speaking nation. This reduces the humanity of foreign parties who may have been English speakers their whole lives to: first, a generalization based on their race; and second, a quantifiable statistic that says virtually nothing about their knowledge. English proficiency is, as a result, defined not by individuals, but by nationality. They further demean the nations they single out as those who had once been underneath their rule. The Western standard of English is a means to control these countries and keep them in line. They must be reminded that they are less than; that their different education system is not only of no comparison, but that they, as a result, are less educated and must prove themselves, regardless of their education system or whether English is the language of instruction at their school.

It has reinforced the colonial mentality that had disparaged foreign education in the past, upholding the belief that Western powers would be justified in subjecting foreigners to their standard of English proficiency, drawing parallels to Kipling-esque colonial sentiments held by imperialist powers that felt the need to occupy foreign lands because of an apparently-inherent superiority.

The bottom line is that if English proficiency was so important to these institutions, they would certainly ask it of all prospective applicants, regardless of their citizenship. But this isn’t the case. Despite what they advocate for, the TOEFL does not value diversity- it only crystallizes the systemically-racist mentality that pressures non-native English speakers to strive in order to be as viable a candidate for higher education as their native counterparts.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the TOEFL is not about education. Rather, it is a matter of immigration, residence, and status that goes to affirm the privilege of those not on the receiving end. The TOEFL is not universal. It is a tool of compartmentalization.

Standardized testing has created a paradoxical hierarchy where even the highest international scorers must conform to the standards of the ultimate presiding power – their former colonizers. With the way things stand, the TOEFL – and standardized tests like it – only perpetuates the racist ideology of colonial apologists.