Changes in store for TOEIC, but test still not total gauge of fluency: experts


Staff Writer

In Japan, having high English proficiency can be a strong advantage for students wishing to get into prestigious universities and companies and for businesspeople seeking a promotion.

As such, obtaining high scores in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), an internationally standardized English test, has become a must-have for people to prove their language ability.

Some people even take a week or two off from work and fly to countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines to attend English courses specifically designed to raise their TOEIC score.

However, some experts say that relying only on this score is not the best way to assess a person’s English proficiency.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based organizer of the TOEIC said it was remodeling the test in May for the first time in a decade to reflect changes in English communication.

Following are questions and answers about the current situation surrounding the TOEIC.

What is the TOEIC?

The TOEIC is an international English proficiency exam taken in 150 countries. It is made up of 200 multiple-choice questions and the score ranges from 10 to 990.

It was developed in 1977 by U.S.-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) at the request of Japan to develop a standard test to measure English language ability.

Since the test was launched in 1979, it has become perhaps the most popular measure of English proficiency in Japan, with about 2.4 million people taking the test in fiscal 2014.

ETS also created the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), another well-known English exam that is used widely for applications to academic and other professional institutions. The TOEIC is particularly popular for business use.

According to the Institute for International Business Communication (IIBC), which organizes the TOEIC in Japan, test participants are classified into five levels based on their scores, with those who score 860 and above graded as level A, meaning they can fluently communicate in English.

According to ETS statistics for 2014, the average score in Japan was 512 — ranking 35th out of 44 countries with more than 500 test takers in a year and lagging behind other Asian countries such as South Korea (646), China (671) and India (769).

How will the test be changed?

According to the IIBC, the new format will include questions about English communication via text messaging. It will also include elisions, such as using “gonna” instead of “going to,” and fragmented sentences in a dialogue.

The new format will also feature new types of questions that require test takers to use several sources, including visual representations such as maps and graphs, and relate them to a dialogue. A dialogue involving three people will also be included in the listening section.

Will the changes affect the test’s difficulty?

Despite some changes, IIBC claims the quality and difficulty of the TOEIC will remain the same, with the score derived in a manner comparable with the previous format.

But experts warn the change could make the test considerably more difficult for many people.

Sumiko Nakamura, who has been teaching TOEIC-related studies for 12 years, said the new test will require the ability to read faster and more precisely in a short amount of time.

Many questions in the new format will take a considerable amount of time to answer, as their structure is more complicated, she said.

Nakamura also said the dialogue comprising three people could be troublesome for those not used to communicating with native English speakers, because it may be difficult for them to tell who is speaking if there is more than one person of the same sex.

How are TOEIC scores used in Japan?

A TOEIC score has been indispensable to university students who want to stand out from other job-seekers during the shukatsu (job-hunting) season.

According to an IICB survey conducted in 2013, about 70 percent of personnel management officials from 228 companies that use English in their business said they looked at applicants’ TOEIC scores when hiring. The survey also showed they expected an average score of 565 for new employees.

Also, some universities use TOEIC scores as part of their requirements for admission.

The department of English at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, for example, set TOEIC score of 730 or more as one of qualifications for applying to its so-called self-recommendation admission.

Many universities are also starting to offer English education courses focused on raising students’ TOEIC scores so as to attract more students in what is a declining youth pool in aging Japan.

Is relying on TOEIC scores problematic?

Some experts say TOEIC scores don’t always reflect true English proficiency.

Yukio Otsu, a professor of language education at Meikai University in Chiba Prefecture, said there were strategies for achieving good TOEIC scores that focus on patterns in test questions.

“It is possible to teach people how to choose the correct answers just by reading the pattern,” Otsu said. “A high score achieved as such doesn’t reflect one’s real English proficiency.”

As a result, “some companies complain their new employees can’t speak English fluently, even though they score high in TOEIC,” Otsu said, adding that the revision would not really help to change the situation so long as there remained patterns in questions and answers.

Otsu also said that although TOEIC is recognized worldwide, it has actually been taken mostly by people in Japan and South Korea.

“I’m not saying TOEIC is meaningless; the test itself is well-developed and it can help people improve their English if used effectively,” Otsu said. But he warned that people were concentrating too much on achieving a good score.

“It is not realistic to believe one kind of test can measure one’s English ability for every situation. I don’t think it is right for everyone to depend on TOEIC,” he said.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    A whole article on TOEIC and no mention whatsoever of how many universities in Europe now refuse to accept the test due to widespread test fraud and cheating?

  • soudeska

    I know lots of people who have very high TOEIC scoes but can barely communicate in English at all, leading me to believe the test is worthless.

    • LaikaCatMeow

      Ditto on TOEFL. My American university (TOP 25 school, very desirable) supposedly required extremely high TOEFL scores, but yet managed to admit scores of Chinese students who can’t even understand basic English.

      • Lala

        I’m pretty sure they understand basic English but just don’t know how to express themselves in English. I know this from own experiences; When I went on a year abroad in the US, I had a high score on Toefl but my speaking ability was disastrous. It’s probably because of the fact that Japanese and English are very different languages and also because I’m extremely shy and not good with people.
        Still, my comprehension was good. I can understand textbooks and most of what professors are saying in class. But since I couldn’t communicate well with my classmates, they assumed I don’t even know the word “pink” and tried to explain it to me once. It was a bit frustrating but I just pretended to thank them for teaching me a new word lol

  • Starviking

    The problem is this: People with high proficiency in English can get high TOEIC scores. In the collective minds of university administrators this gets reversed to:

    High scores in TOEIC equals high English proficiency.

    This is not the case, but sadly Japan’s universities have “locked in” this flawed assumption. You can see it in job advertisements: “will improve the TOEIC scores of…”, “…wish to increase the TOEIC scores of students”, etc.

    What results is a narrow-focused urge to “game the test”. This leaves students viewing English as a way of gaining one-time points – ticking a box, so to say.

    And proficiency in English? That gets kicked to the kerb.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    IELTS, TOEFL, MELAB, PTE, CAE, and CPE seem to be the recognized tests/certifications at universities in Australia and Canada. Universities in New Zealand appear to only recognize IELTS and TOEFL. TOEIC does not appear to be recognized as evidence of competency in any of these countries.
    A cynic might surmise that the TOEIC test’s supremacy in Japan is due to a cosy (and profitable)little deal between the Japanese Institute for International Business Communication and Education Testing Services the US owner of TOEIC, TOEFL, GRE, SAT, and many other assessment instruments. James McCrostie, in an excellent article titled The TOEIC in Japan: A Scandal Made in Heaven, notes that the Institute for International Business Communication is yet another amakudari vehicle for retired bureaucrats.
    Penn State recognizes IELTS, IGSCE and TOEFL. It does not appear to recognize the TOEIC. Harvard does not require any proof of competency in English according to their admissions page.

  • Philosopher

    TOEIC doesn’t test speaking so it’s a very poor test of English communication abilities. IELTS, CAE, CPE and PTE all test speaking and are much better tests for it. The company that administers TOEIC might complain, saying that it’s too difficult to examine speaking but there are tens of thousands of successful qualified examiners who prove them wrong.