Reader Mail

The education ministry's misguided reliance on testing

The education ministry’s aim in enforcing tests like TOEIC as part of its requirement for high school students trying to go to college was dubious from the outset (“TOEIC opts out of new university entrance tests,” July 3). So it is unsurprising that exam producers like ETS now want nothing to do with it.

Twenty years ago, the government mandated that high school students should be able to handle conversational English, but the education ministry has flunked the task repeatedly. Enforcing spoken exams was a last gasp Hail Mary to cover their failure at candidates’ expense as the latter have to dish out exorbitant amounts just to take the exam, and even more to prepare, as the government never bothered to provide enough qualified teachers, opting for middlemen exploiting temporary hires often without the ability or aptitude needed to succeed.

Real spoken teaching and assessment rarely occur in a text/test-bound milieu dominated by nation-wide standardized exams. The verbal varieties used would seem alien to most global English speakers. Dependent on L1 directions, arbitrary multiple choice questions and L1 translation, testing here makes communication a non-starter. The hierarchical nature of society is at its most evident in its scandal-tainted education system. Educational authorities’ take on what English is acceptable defies real world communication.

Governmental administrative authorities increasingly see hiring private testing companies as the main answer to the problem of the chronic inability to communicate in English. They fail to see that testing itself is the cause. Better options are: making communication the aim, improving instructor quality and updating methodology. A national environment of predetermined answering means that tests focus on hybrid grammatical content monopolized by administrators and testing companies with little relevance to communication.

External tests in Japan can’t contain a single error on pain of public media humiliation, but communication is by nature imperfect. Spoken tests and conversation texts are written dialogs tested for grammar via translation in unreal language. Communication can’t be limited to or set in type. It is spontaneous, interactively created and impossible to write in advance.

Some “experts” have supported testing as a motivational boost to communication, but exams don’t offer solutions. The burden they impose risks the opposite effect on many candidates. It also conveniently allows the government and such educators to shirk responsibility as they assert that tests are the answer to improving communicative ability when improved training, teaching and techniques are the only credible solutions.

The education ministry persists in opting for unqualified, exploitable foreign teachers, but creating a vicious cycle of outsourcing teaching jobs ultimately leads to everyone except the companies that win government bids losing as students are taught by ever worsening staff as the companies bidding lower their estimates. The only products are the damaged goods of study and teaching failure, neither of which can be salvaged under present policies.

DAVID JOHN
DAZAIFU, FUKUOKA PREFECTURE

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.