By guest blogger Audrey Armitage
As U.S. relations with Cuba begin to warm up, the historic changes are reaching the world of education. Five Cuban students will take the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam in Havana next week, marking the first time an American testing organization has offered these exams in the country.
Although the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, New Jersey-based global nonprofit organization administering the exams, is “starting small” in staging the first TOEFL session, the organization sees the move to offer the exams as the beginning of a larger educational exchange.
There will likely be more tests offered in Cuba in the future, said Eileen Tyson, the executive director of global client relations at ETS. In addition to administering the TOEFL exam this week, ETS also plans to provide an opportunity for students in the Communist nation to take the Graduate Record Examinations in October.
Due to confidentiality concerns, ETS was unable to disclose whether the first students who will sit the exam are high school-age or are prospective graduate students. At this point, it is too early to tell whether future TOEFL examination sessions will serve more high school students or adult-age Cubans, said ETS spokesman Jason Baran.
There are a number of technical and logistical barriers to administering the foreign-language standardized tests in Cuba—which partly explains why initially only five Cuban students will sit for the exam, and why no further TOEFL exams have been scheduled at this time, explained Tyson.
Registration for the exams takes place online and requires a credit card, which many Cubans do not have, she said. Completing registration may require assistance from family members outside of Cuba, as was the case for the students currently scheduled to take the exam.
Tyson noted that universities also have the option of finding interested students and purchasing vouchers through ETS to assist the students in registering.
Beyond registration, there are additional technical hurdles to overcome in arranging the tests in Cuba, as both the TOEFL and GRE are taken on a computer.
“Testing has to be very secure, and we need to have certain safeguards in terms of the Internet connection and firewall constraints,” said Tyson.
Education as Stepping Stone in Broader International Relations
ETS has been receiving assistance from the U.S. government in offering the exam in Cuba, and the TOEFL test is scheduled to take place in the U.S. special interest section of the Swiss embassy in Havana.
Currently, ETS is working to develop relationships with Cuban universities and provide test prep materials for broader groups of students who wish to take the exams. As the process of administering exams becomes smoother, Tyson predicts demand from Cuban students wanting to take the tests will increase.
“We expect the progress to mirror U.S.-Cuba relations,” she said. As ties between the two nations increase, “Cuban students will be more aware of educational opportunities and ETS will be better able to help students prepare.”
Many international educators have already expressed interest to ETS in offering standardized college entrance exams in Cuba, observed Tyson. Schools are hoping to “diversify their student bodies and engage with Cuban students.”
One such institution is the University of Washington’s school of law, which wants to offer the TOEFL exam to Cuban students. The law school’s Barer Institute focuses on international law and actively seeks students from countries with developing economies.
“With improved relations, it made sense to explore Cuban students’ interest in a U.S. education,” said Mathiew Le, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at the law school.
While the educational exchange process between the U.S. and Cuba is still in the very early stages, college recruitment in Cuba could be a great opportunity, said Le. “It’s exciting to see how ETS will serve as a model for other organizations and schools.”
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