[Viewpoint] Leave language education to teachers

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[Viewpoint] Leave language education to teachers

The Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation recently completed the pilot program for the new English proficiency tests, under the guidelines announced earlier this year. No information is yet available as to the outcome of the initial run, how big a budget has been appropriated, and who will be held responsible if the government’s plan to launch a national English testing system in 2012 fails.

This plan should be reconsidered unless it proves impossible to find a better solution to the present problems of English education in Korea. No matter how valid, reliable and discriminating the national English test may be, it would not be practical to invest time, energy, effort and money to develop a completely new system.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology claimed that the crux of the idea to produce this new system was to reduce dependency on foreign examinations such as Test of English as a Foreign Language and the Test of English for International Communication as well as to practically enhance students’ communicative competence in English. It may make sense in this way, and it might help enhance Korea’s national prestige to possess its own national English testing system, but this mind-set should be dismissed if we are to accept English as an international or global language.

It would be worthwhile if the government could create a testing system that was exported and recognized as one of the worldwide systems like the Toefl, Toeic and International English Language Testing System sponsored jointly by the British Council and Canadian and Australian institutions. It is highly impractical to develop a testing system purely for domestic consumption, because those who go abroad for further study, employment or immigration will still take the Toefl, Toeic or IELTS in addition to or instead of the national test.

Tests or examinations differ from assessments and evaluations in that they are often instruments or procedures to measure behavior. Good English testing stimulates students to study harder by showing them where they need to improve. It is not educationally desirable or ethical, however, to quantify the scores of individual students and identify their ratings at a national level.

It is evident that all our schools, teachers and parents will be obsessed with the scores of their students on the national test. The private institutes or hagwon will be transformed into preparation centers for these tests. The already exorbitant costs of private education will soar even higher. This will run exactly counter to the government’s basic commitment to bringing English education into the public domain, to reduce the study burden on students and to defuse excessive competition.

To develop a new testing system, the government would first have to conduct rigorous research for several years. Then it would still need to spend more foreign currency to purchase expertise from native speaker specialists and institutions. We would be far better off trading the Korean Language Proficiency Test for an internationally adopted English testing system. There are several viable alternatives. First, it would be far easier to purchase testing systems that already exist in this country, such as the Test of English Proficiency developed by Seoul National University, the Practical English Level Test, the General Test of English Language Proficiency, the Foreign Language Examination, the Secondary Level English Proficiency test or the Test of Skills in the English Language. We could integrate them and make improvements to them instead of producing another contender on the market. Most of these domestically created testing systems have already demonstrated their quality and earned general acceptance as a result of a a long history of adjustments, including speaking and writing sections.

Even though English education may be on the national agenda, it must be actually implemented at the classroom level in close cooperation with teachers, parents, schools and local authorities. The central government’s primary role should be to supervise the general balance between these areas and support those that may lag behind, as the United States federal government does under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. In this context, English proficiency tests should not be administered by the central government but left to those who are responsible for classroom assessments.

The ultimate solution is to liberate people from the English language and examinations so that those who do not want to study English may choose other subjects or languages instead. Perhaps the most pervasive fallacy in teaching and learning languages is that test researchers and instructors have given short shrift to the artistic aspects of language. Learning English must be different from learning the natural sciences, social sciences or humanities, of course, but at the same time it should not be similar to learning the fine arts, performing arts or martial arts. If no major differences are found between testing English and testing painting, piano or taekwondo, the government is not doing its job and must delegate authority to test English to the classroom teachers.

Tests in Korea are considered a necessary evil. Washback effects can be expected from individual teachers turning this necessary evil into an unnecessary nuisance. English must be excluded from the Korean version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and college entrance examinations. Those who want to study more English can enjoy free lessons at schools and public libraries. In a test-free environment, they can compete in English essay contests, storytelling contests and speech contests.

The present hasty push is doomed to failure. More meddling is not the answer.

*The country already has half a dozen perfectly good English tests. Why do we need another?

by Jae-bum Kim
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