Original URL: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/edit/archives/2002/12/27/188774

Proficiency tests are not always a good idea

By Wu Ching-Shyue
Friday, Dec 27, 2002,Page 8
Taipei Times

The Ministry of Education recently announced that elementary school students in some areas must
pass general proficiency tests in Chinese, English and mathematics in order to graduate, starting in the
2005 academic year.
Sixth-graders who do not do so will be required to take supplementary courses to bring them up to
the standards required for graduation.

This new policy will probably become a cause for concern for parents who expect their children to
develop healthily and to experience the pleasure of learning.

Stephen Krashen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California, has argued that
teaching is unduly oriented toward the taking of tests. For a vocabulary test, teachers and parents
urge students simply to memorize vocabulary and spelling. For a grammar test, teachers teach just
grammar and the students study nothing but grammar.

Research, however, shows that reading for pleasure is the most effective way to develop vocabulary
and grammar skills. Besides, the cognitive ability of children is generally insufficiently developed for
rigorous instruction on the finer points of grammar. Rather, children should naturally take in grammar
through human interaction and by reading for their own pleasure.

The proficiency test imposed on elementary school students will encourage teaching methods that
count chickens before they are hatched. We can expect more and more mid-term, monthly and term
exams for elementary English education. The exams will require students to memorize new vocabulary
and sentence structures instantly.

But studies in Taiwan have long shown that difficulties memorizing vocabulary and problems
understanding grammar are the biggest obstacles facing elementary English education. These are also
the main reasons why some students lose interest in learning English.

In fact, the development of language skills occurs over a long period of time as part of a gradual,
cumulative process. If a word is important, it will appear frequently. There is no need to get anxious if
children cannot memorize it immediately. As long as they are interested and confident, they will get the
hang of it sooner or later.

At present, many cram schools, teachers, and parents require children to memorize vocabulary and
spelling. The new English proficiency test will further encourage belief in the misguided notion that the
faster children learn the better they learn.

Wu Yin-chang (d^), a professor of psychology at National Taiwan University, reminds everyone
that it is fine to take a long time to learn, as long as we eventually master what we are learning. This is
the kind of approach on which our long-term plans should be based.

Wu also points out something particular in our culture: people get nervous and go all out for high
grades if there is a test.

If proficiency tests for graduating elementary school students are to come into effect, one possible
consequence is that the students will "go all out for the tests." One common problem shared by both
elementary and junior high schools is that the level of proficiency varies greatly from one student to
another. The tests will only review the problems experienced by the students.

I believe the time and money that the tests will cost would be better spent on raising the teaching
skills of the teachers. How to teach classes of varying levels of proficiency, for example, is a constant
professional challenge faced by English teachers. We should focus on new approaches to course
planning and on how to innovate in English-language education.

Wu Ching-shyue is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Foreign Languages at
Chaoyang University of Technology.

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