BOSTON (AP) – For American students, tests like the SAT, ACT and GRE mark the path to college and graduate school. But for hundreds of thousands of international students hoping to study in the United States, a major concern is proving their language skills on the TOEFL – the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

Now that test has undergone a major makeover, aimed at better evaluating how well applicants can communicate in English. As the test debuts Saturday, some students, particularly Asians, are worried they’ll be disadvantaged because of how they were taught English in school.

Last year, 750,000 students took the old, mostly multiple-choice TOEFL. But in recent years, many of the 5,200 English-speaking colleges and universities that use the exam have grown concerned the test fails to identify students who master only “textbook” English. There have also been complaints from undergraduates who can’t understand the foreign graduate students teaching their classes.

After a decade’s research, the Educational Testing Services will be giving the new TOEFL “iBT” (Internet-based test) this weekend in U.S. test centers. The exam will phase in worldwide over the next year.

Perhaps the biggest change is a new speaking component; previously, ETS offered a separate speaking test, but few students took it. More broadly, the focus shifts to how well students read, write and speak in combination.

Students may be asked to listen to a recording and read a passage, then to speak about both. Their responses will be digitally recorded, then downloaded by experts to grade.

In school, “you’re always using a combination of skills,” said ETS senior vice president Mari Pearlman. “When you read, you take notes. When you’re in a classroom, you’re also speaking and writing.” Students need all three skills outside the classroom, too, whether it’s finding housing or figuring out the washing machine.

It’s a much more significant reworking than the recent makeover of the SAT. And the changes have some students nervous, particularly those from Asia, where schools generally emphasize vocabulary and grammar over speaking.

“Most Asians, especially (from) Japan, Korea, Taiwan, love reading, structure, grammar,” Yoshihiko Iwasaki, a Japanese student hoping to attend business school, said while on break from a Kaplan TOEFL test-prep class in Boston earlier this week. “(Our) speaking is weak, because sometimes, it’s impolite to speak out, to describe an opinion, or talk to the teacher. When we take a class, we just sit and take notes and memorize.”

Both Asian and non-Asian students at the Kaplan Center said they were nervous about the test. But Emily Pierre, who manages English programs there, said “we’re all kind of thinking this is going to be more of a challenge to Asian students.” Natawan Umnahanant, a student from Thailand hoping to study food science at an American university, laughed that classmates and teachers chide her for “iBT-phobia.”

Pearlman said pre-testing does not suggest students from particular countries will suffer. She acknowledged Asian students may have disadvantages, but said they will make up for them because “they are ferociously capable and determined.”

Educators hope the change will improve English teaching worldwide. When ETS added writing to the TOEFL in the 1970s, curricula around the world adjusted. Now, ETS predicts the new speaking section will have a similar effect.

It also hopes administering the test via the Internet will improve access to it, giving more international students a shot at studying abroad, be it in the United States or elsewhere. The change will let ETS expand the number of test sites from 500 to 3,000 by 2007.

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