Test problems here and abroad

The recent news that two of the most popular English-language proficiency tests in Japan can no longer be accepted as prerequisites for student visas to Britain may have come as a shock to students, parents and test administrators. But the exams have long been suspected of having problems, even as they proliferated.

The refusal to accept TOEIC and TOEFL exams were the result of the uncovering of fraud at a testing center by a BBC program. It will be hard to calculate the loss of confidence in such exams that will result from the BBC’s reporting.

The announcement should also come as a bit of an embarrassment to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who recently suggested the possibility of using the two exams as part of the admission and graduation requirements for Japanese universities.

While the intention was surely a good one — to improve the level of English in Japan — if test fraud is so easy to perpetrate and to uncover, it may not be the best choice of exam here, either.

In addition to the inconvenience to many students who must now switch to other exams in order to apply for visas to U.K. universities, the ban will only make it harder for Japanese students to convince themselves to study abroad.

Students should understand that such tests are only one small step in the process, and that the value of studying abroad is immense.

While the exams have expanded in recent years to include the measurement of more active skills, such as essay writing and speaking, they are still an incomplete assessment of any student’s overall ability to study well in English.

Such exams can only be a rough measure and should amount to just one aspect of any application to university study. As with entrance exams in Japan, they are often considered the single most important point for entering many schools.

The spotlight on the tests should also highlight how much money is involved in the international English testing industry. The practice books, preparation courses and test-taking fees have continued to rise over the years and now form a significant barrier to students who cannot afford all the expenses. Continued reliance on such exams to evaluate students does not help students really learn English, or any other subject for that matter.

The over-emphasis on passing such exams comes at the expense of building up other creative and critical skills that really are needed for serious study.

The exams alone are not adequate for testing the truly important interpersonal, communicative skills that are the most needed, both in school and in real life.

  • Firas Kraïem

    “The over-emphasis on passing such exams comes at the expense of building up other creative and critical skills that really are needed or serious study.

    The exams alone are not adequate for testing the truly important interpersonal, communicative skills that are the most needed, both in school and in real life.”

    The exams are perfetly adequate for the task they are intended to perform, which is to weed out the grossly incompetent. Face it, those tests are so ridiculously easy that anyone who does not pass them is clearly unsuitable for study in an English-speaking environment. And if those tests exist, it is presumable because many such people would in fact apply to English-speaking universities and be a waste of time for admission commitees, were passig the test not a prerequisite.

    As for English tests being “considered the single most important point for entering many schools,” please name such schools or otherwise support that claim.

  • Demosthenes

    I suspect there is a bit of a political motive behind this “exposure” of fraud in the TOEIC system. That is, the UK is wanting to push its own IELTS testing system as a “superior” testing standard. This is merely a speculation, however.

  • phu

    “The over-emphasis on passing such exams comes at the expense of building up other creative and critical skills that really are needed for serious study.”

    This is as close as the article gets to addressing the fundamental problem that’s affecting the students in this case. If you suddenly realize you’ve wasted a lot of time because you were studying for a test instead of studying a subject on which you expected to be tested, your first thought should not be “what other test can I study for,” it should be “why am I not just actually learning the material?”

    This is a lesson many nations and administrations need to learn, but Japan seems to have a particularly bad case of “teaching to the test.” There is more value (though still marginal and largely short-term) in learning general test-taking skills, but the crux of it is that instructing students on exactly what they need to know and how they need to use it in order to pass a specific test is not “teaching” in any useful manner.

    If these people had been learning to actually read, write, and speak English in a useful way, this would be a minor inconvenience. But instead of learning actual skills, they’re learning rote methods of passing specific tests.

    It’s sham educational, and as entrenched as it is as an attitude, it’s going to keep getting worse until enough people decide to make it better — and then actually act on that. Until (well, unless) that happens, students being “educated” in this sort of environment will continue to pay more and more money to truly learn very little.