"Shocking test scores" in Korea

Some commentary in the July 5 edition of The Korea Times carries the title, “shocking Test Scores: Incompetent Teachers, Wrong Methods Ruin English Education.” It appears that a group of teachers participating in a program for “excellent teachers” conducted by the Korean education ministry took a TOEIC test. Their scores were surprisingly low according to the writer. The average score for 272 junior high school teachers was 718. The writer compared this to the average score of “new recruits at 40 large companies,” which was 778.

The article itself is not a masterfully crafted piece of prose, but my aim is not to criticize that. This post is also not about the understated nationalistic flavor that runs through the piece with concerns that Korean students are going abroad to study language or the statement, “Still, the Korean people’s English proficiency is at the bottom of 12 Asian nations, even behind Japan.” (He doesn’t need to worry much about being behind Japan today. Give it a few years. The way the county is not supporting its teachers, Korea will be in fine shape.) My aim in this post is to defend the teachers.

First of all the measure. The TOEIC test is, as the writer points out, a measure of English listening and reading skills. The title, “Test Of English for International Communication,” promises a test of English. It delivers, but what brand of English? Listening to the CD’s and reading the preparation materials that ETS, the company that publishes this test product and a range of test preparation materials, produces, one will soon realize that it is American English with all of the speakers using the same accent. In an informal count of my own, using a product produced by TOEIC, most of the speakers were male. So what we have is a limited test of two skills of a language from a specific country, using speakers, mostly men, who speak in the same way. This is hardly an international cross section of English.

The test itself, according to materials produced by TOEIC, “TOEIC Test of English for International Communication: Report on Test Takers Worldwide: 2002-03,” is consumed most often in Japan and Korea, with Japan taking 72% of the tests and Korea with 15%. My point here is that the test, though offered all over the world, is mainly an Asian test. It is test of a limited range of language skills for a limited group of consumers.

Is it significant, then? It is because some companies make it so, not because the test in itself is something that has any great intrisic value as a tool for measuring language skills. For example, Fujitsu has made a requirement that all of its employees will take the TOEIC test. In the article “‘The English Boom’ andFujitsu’s Requirement That All Employees Take The TOEIC” it is suggested that more than 2,000 Japanese companies use the test for in-house purposes. This is a quote by the president of Fujitsu, Sekizawa Tadashi, on the reason for using TOEIC.

You no doubt remember that we had all of you take the Test of English for International Communication [TOEIC] during the hiring process. This is because about 90 percent of global Internet content is written in English.

The logic of this statement is obviously broken. The employees took the test because 90% of the Internet content is in English. What is the connection? TOEIC represents Internet English? Is Internet English represented in the test? Even if it were it would be the language of the English speakers who use the Internet, which is a very small portion of the population of the world.

TOEIC is part of Japanese corporate consciousnesss, but I argue that the links are illogical and not pedagogically sound.

This all said, the question remains, what does TOEIC have to do with teaching? What are teachers’ jobs? To produce fluent speakers of English or to prepare young people for poorly constructed college entrance exams? As for the first question, what does TOEIC have to do with teaching? Nothing. I don’t think TOEIC company would claim that a high test on the test means that the teacher is competent. Conversely, would a competent teacher score highly? Not necessarily. It is a very narrow test of language ability, and good English teachers must prepare their students for more than just communication (I’m thinking of translation and remembering non-communicative grammar and vocabulary), while at the same time moving in lockstep with the Education Ministry’s curriculum.

The next question was about the nature of the aims of English education in schools. Would a teacher, regardless of his or her language skills, be successful if they could not produce students who passed entrance exams? Hardly. Students and parents, whose hopes ride on successful entrance to the school or company of their choise, would be ill served by a teacher who could not help them, regardless of how fluent the teacher was in English. Entrance exams themselves have little to do with the ability to communicate in English. They include translation and a number of other skills that are not covered in the TOEIC test.

The article then goes on to suggest that teachers go abroad to learn language and teaching skills, come home and teach students. I can assume that this study abroad would also boost TOEIC scores. Any evidence for that? It also seems like an unlikely senario seeing how funding for teachers is being cut rather than increased.

So either get off the teachers about low test scores and get on the government, your elected officials, to change the system, or resign yourselves, both in Korea and Japan, to the decaying status-quo.

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