Firm floats alternative to TOEFL

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

While Japan looks to make a passing score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language mandatory for university entrance, it should also consider alternative exams that might work better, said John de Jong, senior vice president at Pearson English, a division of Pearson PLC.

“PTE (Pearson Test of English) Academic is the most recent international test. It was developed in the 21st century,” de Jong said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “So we could make use of the experience and the information that is around in the language-testing world.”

De Jong was visiting Japan last week to make a presentation to the education ministry about PTE Academic, which like the TOEFL is designed to measure the English proficiency of non-native speakers.

The computer-based test was developed and managed by England-based Pearson, the world’s largest publisher and education company and the owner of the Financial Times.

To strengthen English education, the government has announced that it might require students who want to go to college to pass the TOEFL. De Jong, an expert in language education and testing, said PTE Academic offers more advantages than other exams.

Launched in 2009 and recognized by about 3,000 colleges worldwide, PTE Academic mainly consists of open-ended questions and can measure a wide range of proficiency levels, he said.

“In the news and in talking to colleagues of mine that I meet from Japan, they are saying TOEFL is likely to be way too difficult for students coming out of secondary education,” de Jong said.

As an example, he said PTE Academic contains a speaking question that asks students to apologize. Students could simply say “Sorry,” but this is a low-level answer worth only 1 point. If they say: “I deeply regret that I may have offended you,” such a higher-level answer could earn 3 points.

Rather than simply judging right or wrong, PTE Academic really allows students to test at their own level, said de Jong, who helped develop the test.

The three-hour test is divided into four parts — reading, speaking, writing and listening — and is scored on a scale ranging from 10 to 90. It also reflects real-life settings, de Jong said. For some of the speaking questions, students are required to answer quickly just like they would in a real conversation.

“Most other tests do not have the same attention for real-life language,” he said.

In addition, PTE Academic is more convenient to take and faster in reporting the results, according to de Jong.

People can book an appointment for the test just a day in advance and receive their score in five days. With the TOEFL, they have to book seven days in advance and wait 10 days for the results.

De Jong said the presentation to the education officials went well and they accepted his request to consider PTE Academic as an option for the university entrance requirement.

As for Japan’s aim to improve its education system, he said it is commendable that the authorities have realized the importance of strengthening students’ international communication skills.

But he also noted that Japan will have hard time because there are very few chances for Japanese to expose themselves to real English in daily life, for example on public television. He said that in China, there is a public TV channel that only runs English programs.

He also raised a major problem with the language classes in public schools — the lack of opportunities to speak.

“There is not enough attention to spoken language. Japanese students do not get into context with spoken language enough,” de Jong said.

He said he has heard that even the English teachers do not speak English in class. “If they don’t speak English in class, how can the students pick up spoken language?” he asked.

  • kyushuphil

    “If they don’t speak English in class . . ..” Now, there’s a hoot.

    The Japanese ministry of education provides no help to English teachers. Thus, almost none travel — ever — to any English-speaking countries. Almost none ever read any English books. They exist solely as robotic herders of regimented following of totally meaningless textbooks. It’s a dead world, thanks to this ministry which gives no life.

    The tests? Sure, TOEFL, Pearson, others all may be fine, too. But maybe the zombies in the ministry of ed can’t help but walk like living dead because all the Japanese school system thrives on dead regimentation, suicidal cramming of inert facts, never enlivened by essay writing or other individual growth arts which students could be learning in their Japanese content courses.

  • poolly

    “To strengthen English education, the government has announced that it might require students who want to go to college to pass the TOEFL.”

    You cannot “pass” or “fail” the TOEFL. You get a score based on performance…that’s it, that’s all.

  • Casper

    If The Ministry of Education were serious about improving the communicative ability of its younger citizens they would first look at options such as making a mandatory overseas stay part of teacher training, creating a speaking class that focused on not only conversation but also debating real issues, and having smaller class sizes (in English class) to increase teacher-student and student-student interaction in the target language. Without sufficient teacher training and support any system is doomed to failure. English should be approached as a means of global communication: a fun and exciting way to reach across geographical borders in order to experience the knowledge, culture and traditions of ‘World English’ speakers everywhere, not simply regurgitated on a test for the purpose of passing an examination and then quickly forgotten.