NO MORE JUST SKATING BY

TOEIC revisions mean big change in English study

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TOEIC

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Kazumi Iwase gives lessons recently at ARE, a school in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, that specializes in preparing students for TOEIC.
TOEIC, which consists of listening and reading portions to evaluate English proficiency, has a corner on the English qualification test market in Japan.This is one of TOEIC's biggest markets, with nearly 1.5 million people here taking it in fiscal 2005 while the overall number worldwide stood at some 4.5 million in 2004, according to the Institute for International Business Communication.It is the first revision since the English proficiency test for nonnative speakers was launched in 1979.The changes will be instituted next year for group participants who take the exam on a corporate basis."The idea behind the changes is to make the test 'more authentic' . . . and meet the needs of the times and the situation regarding how English is actually being used" at work, said Kazumi Yamamoto, an IIBC spokeswoman. The IIBC is the Japanese administrator of TOEIC, which is a product of the U.S.-based English Testing Service. "For the past 25 years, we have seen such changes as the emergence of e-mail as a major communication means," while reading and analyzing long passages in English is growing increasingly more common in the business field, she said.The biggest changes in the new listening portion of the test is that it will use four accents -- American, British, Canadian and Australian -- and each conversation will be longer.In the reading section, error recognition questions will be replaced by fill-in-the blanks based on long passages. Test-takers will be required to answer questions by reading two interrelated passages instead of a single passage.The number of total questions, 200, and the duration, two hours, will remain unchanged. Scores range from 10 to 990.Although the IIBC maintains these changes are not intended to make the exam more difficult, it is widely perceived as a step toward more dramatic revisions, prompting many to take the test before it gets harder.The number of people who took the test in March -- the last time under the old version -- was a record 140,000, up 19.2 percent year-on-year, according to the IIBC.ETS is also considering the addition of new writing and speaking components in the future, the IIBC said.The media has reported that the writing and speaking components will be added in late 2006, but the IIBC said the timing has not been decided.All Round English Inc., which operates a school in Tokyo focusing on preparing for TOEIC, believes it is inevitable that ETS will make the test more difficult. "The future direction of – is to prevent test-takers who only learn techniques from getting high marks,” ARE President Yoshinari Nagamoto said.

The revision will affect many workers in Japan.

Some 2,500 companies, organizations and educational institutions here use the test not only to assess English proficiency but also to determine promotions and overseas assignments.

Globalization “is inevitably increasing employees’ chances of communicating in English at work,” said Toyota Motor Corp. spokeswoman Yurika Motoyoshi.

The world’s second-largest automaker is rapidly expanding its production bases and overseas networks, making its workers’ English training a primary concern.

In 1999, Toyota made it a requirement that administrative and engineering personnel had to have a TOEIC score of at least 600 to be promoted to the equivalent of section chief.

In addition, Toyota introduced TOEIC Bridge — the English test for beginners whose score ranges from 20 to 180 — to evaluate the English skills of production workers.

The IIBC tailored the TOEIC Bridge score evaluation to the characteristics of manufacturing employees. For instance, those who attain scores of 96 to 115 “can give instructions on how to attach an armrest of a car.”

“As we shift production overseas, an increasing number of manufacturing workers in Japan are being dispatched abroad to support overseas production,” to convey not only technical skills but also Toyota’s philosophy, to local employees, Motoyoshi said.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. in April raised the TOEIC score requirement to 550 from the previous 450 for almost every employee wishing to be promoted to above the section chief level, while those aspiring to get overseas assignments are required to achieve a score of 650.

“The good thing about TOEIC is that we can objectively assess the workers’ ability to use English in terms of scores,” said Hiroaki Nishimura of the firm’s global human resources team.

“I think 730 is the ideal score level for business in general and we wanted to raise the minimum standard even if only slightly,” he said, adding that the electronics giant intends to raise the mandatory level in the future.

He welcomes the revision of TOEIC because it will enable Matsushita to assess its employees’ English proficiency more accurately. “Lacking substantial English skills means that you’ll get less job opportunities in the workplace.”

People who try to learn techniques just to get a good score regardless of their actual ability to communicate in English are going to have a much tougher time with TOEIC now.

But Masahiro Takamoto, who studies English at TOEIC prep school ARE, is optimistic about the exam’s future direction.

The 32-year-old employee of Visionare Corp., a venture company engaged in DVD-related business, said his ultimate goal is not to obtain high marks but to gain English skills that will someday help him get a job overseas.

He spends five hours at the school every Saturday, attending four lessons to prepare for the test.

Takamoto, who achieved a TOEIC score of 715 in March, up about 60 points from the last time he took the test two years ago, said preparing for TOEIC helps because he can learn practical words used in business.

“In the long run, the revision of TOEIC will affect me in a good way because I’m serious about improving my English.”