Fri, Dec 27, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Proficiency tests are not always a good idea

By Wu Ching-Shyue 吳慶學

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 (吳英璋), 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.

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