In many Asian countries, the English language proficiency test is one of the main pillars of the school gate. In these countries, English competency is not only an important asset for the individual or society in this global era, but also an important subject of the high-stakes test for college entrance. For this reason, the format of English language testing for college entrance in Asian countries and other EFL, or English as a Foreign Language, countries has a great impact on the teaching and study of English.
In this context, English education in Korea is a very important issue among parents and students. Even elementary-school students are aware that they have to learn English in order to get a good job in the future. Critics, however, point out that even ten years of formal English education in Korea have not given our students the ability to communicate effectively with foreigners. Of course, English is not a second or official language in Korea. Therefore, students have little opportunity to practice English outside of school. Do the students then have enough exposure or opportunities to interact in English in the classroom? Do teachers provide the students with enough chances to speak English?
In order to enhance practical English education, the Korean government has implemented “English Education Innovation to Enhance Practical English Education in Schools.” One of the strategies of this initiative for changing school education is to introduce a new English test, the National English Ability Test. The rationale for developing the NEAT is to promote and enhance practical and communicative English education in schools since the new test will include speaking and writing sections, while the current College Scholastic Ability Test only assesses reading and listening.
One of the important aspects of the NEAT is the alignment of the content of the test with the National Curriculum. The new high-school English curriculum offers elective subjects: general English courses are aligned with NEAT Level 2, while practical English courses are aligned with NEAT Level 3. The NEAT was launched in 2012, and the students’ scores are being used as admission criteria for seven universities.
Will this new English test facilitate communication in the classrooms? In a survey asking the reasons for not teaching speaking in the classroom, 78.9 percent of teachers replied that the College Scholastic Ability Test includes only the reading and listening domains. In the same survey, 73.5 percent of students answered that they felt that it is necessary to acquire speaking skills, and 68.2 percent of them said that writing is important.
In other words, the students think that speaking and writing are important, but they are not being delivered appropriately in the classroom because of the high-stakes test.
In a survey implemented in 2011, 72.5 percent of parents polled expect innovation in speaking and writing instruction in our schools, and 65.92 percent of them expect that students will speak and write better. A majority of high-school English teachers (67.84 percent) expect that the NEAT will enhance school education, and 68.20 percent expect that the NEAT will improve students’ English competence.
Of English education specialists, 79.12 percent expect that the NEAT will enhance school education, and 84.09 percent of them expect that the NEAT will improve students’ English competence. Parents (72.5 percent) and English education specialists (84.09 percent) expect that the innovation of speaking and writing instruction at school and the NEAT will improve students’ English competence.
According to the results of the survey, parents, experts, teachers, and students expect that, if the NEAT is applied, English classes will change; they will become more communicative and practical. They also think that student skills in speaking and writing will improve. The teachers will teach to the test, the NEAT; and this is expected to facilitate real communication in the classroom. A prerequisite, however, is that the schools and teachers be prepared and well qualified for this change; otherwise, the test will be just a test, and not a facilitator for learning.
By Jin Kyung-ae
Jin Kyung-ae is a director of the National English Ability Test Division at the Korea Institute for Curriculum & Evaluation. ―Ed.