THE BUSINESS ENGLISH BUSINESS

New tests challenging TOEIC stronghold

by Eriko Arita

Scoring 500 points on the TOEIC English proficiency test is a prerequisite for promotion to section chief or a higher managerial position at construction machinery maker Komatsu Ltd.

Komatsu is not alone. Many Japanese corporations use the Test of English for International Communication as a standard of assessing the foreign language proficiency of their employees.

According to the Institute for International Business Communication, TOEIC’s administrator, more than 1.32 million people took the exam in 2002 in Japan.

The TOEIC currently corners the English qualification test market for businesses, but new types of examinations have recently emerged, targeting the same market.

One new test will be offered by the Society for Testing English Proficiency, Inc., which runs another English proficiency test of long standing, known as the “eiken,” which has been popular with students but is seeing a decline in examinees.

STEP announced in September that it is now preparing a qualification test for business English in cooperation with the University of Cambridge’s English for Speakers of Other Languages. The test will debut next autumn at the earliest, according to STEP officials.

Takeshi Hashizume, manager of the test production division at STEP, said the new test, which consists of reading and listening sections, is based on Cambridge ESOL’s Business Language Testing Service exam.

A major feature of the computer-based exam is that its questions automatically adapt to a test-taker’s ability, Hashizume said. For example, if an examinee fails to answer correctly, an easier task will appear in the following question.

“Because the computer assigns questions that suit the ability of the individual test-taker, the accuracy of the evaluation is higher (than that of a paper test),” said Takashi Konishi, STEP’s director of planning and publicity.

Konishi said the new test is STEP’s first foray into business English.

“By offering the new test, we believe we can contribute to lifelong learning of the public,” he said. “We of course regard (1.32 million TOEIC test-takers) as a target for our test.”

Konishi said that one reason STEP took the business English tack is that the number of eiken test-takers is declining, falling from a 1999 peak of 3.5 million to 2.7 million at present, and 60 percent to 70 percent of them are students.

STEP officials attributed the fall to the declining number of students, stemming from the low birthrate. Another cause is erroneous media reports that said the test would be abolished, he said.

As part of government administrative reforms, the education ministry in 2001 halted its official endorsement of technical examinations, including the eiken. The test, however, continues to be offered.

Another business English test — the Global Test of English Communication — debuted Sept. 16, provided by Benesse Corp. and Berlitz International, Inc.

The test, jointly developed by the two companies, examines not just reading and listening comprehension, but also speaking and writing skills, according to Hitoshi Yamashita, director of product development at Benesse.

The companies offer the new test via the Internet, and test-takers must answer the questions on computers. Like STEP’s test, GTEC provides tasks that adapt to the test-taker’s level.

Whereas a paper test requires a number of questions to gauge proficiency, “adaptable” tests can evaluate language ability with fewer questions, Yamashita claimed.

In the GTEC speaking segment, answers are recorded through a microphone and sent to Benesse Corp. via the Internet.

“The GTEC can assess all four language skills at a time,” Yamashia said, boasting the test’s ability to gauge writing skills, which company employees increasingly need for writing e-mail in English.

But since TOEIC is the de facto standard of business English testing, the newcomers will face a hard time trying to make inroads into the market. The key will be if their new features win over individuals and companies.

The GTEC evaluates reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. On the other hand, the TOEIC consists of sections that appraise reading and listening skills. An interview test to assess speaking skills comes at an additional fee.

Kazuhiko Saito of the TOEIC administrator’s public relations division said the TOEIC does not include speaking and writing sections because reading and writing skills, like listening and speaking, are closely related to each other, and thus it is possible to evaluate overall English proficiency with the current test.

He also said the 6,615 yen exam fee would have to be higher if the test covered all four skills. According to Benesse, the GTEC fee is 9,500 yen per application.

The GTEC and STEP’s new test are both computerized, but there are no plans to put the TOEIC online at present. The TOEIC institute said it’s easier to arrange a venue for a paper exam than finding a location equipped with enough computers for every test-taker, and thus paper tests can be held more often.

TOEIC may be the most popular, but Michihiro Hirai, president of Hirai Language Services, said the evaluation alternatives offered by the new tests may eventually win over companies.

Hirai, a former director at Hitachi Ltd.’s internal language training center, examined the relationship between the active skills of speaking and writing and the receptive skills of listening and reading.

Based on his research, he concluded that TOEIC scores do not accurately represent test-takers’ active skills.

“Essentially, it is advisable that companies utilize a multidimensional language qualification test,” Hirai said, adding that corporations may find the GTEC better fills the bill.

He also argued that TOEIC questions are too easy to accurately gauge the proficiency of high-level English learners.

Thus, the new business English tests, which can adjust the degree of difficulty of their questions to accommodate advanced learners, might be able to assess their language ability more accurately, he said.

But time will be needed for the new tests to gain a footing.

“Many companies have incorporated the TOEIC in their personnel evaluations,” Hirai said. “To replace the TOEIC with the new tests, (the newcomers) need a lot of energy to win over corporate personnel officials.”