This year's first national elementary-level General English Proficiency Tests (GEPT) were held on Jan. 8 in 15 examination districts all over Taiwan on. Over 120,000 students took the tests, a new record, demonstrating that studying English has indeed become a "national movement" in the country.
According to media reports, participants' ages ranged from 6 to 76 years. The 15-to-19 age group was the largest at 56 percent, followed by those under the age of 14, which made up over 30 percent of students taking the test. Over 500 were in the under-10 age group.
As for the 76-year-old, I would like to extend both my wishes for success in the exam, as well as my admiration for someone who so well epitomizes the idea that study is a life-long occupation.
The study of English should not be restricted to the classroom, and the difficulties of language practice in schools is not the be-all and end-all of proficiency. I sincerely hope that there will be more examples of mature students taking the GEPT simply for the sake of challenging their own English proficiency.
On the other hand, media reports also reveal that approximately 30,000 of the participants this time around were elementary-school students. As I'm sure everyone is aware, the elementary-level GEPTs are designed to test the standard of English expected of a junior high school graduate, and it is therefore perhaps a little surprising to learn that a certain private junior high school in Tainan County entered all of its 1,100 students for the test. That is, until we understand that this is one way in which the school can enhance its image.
Since so many elementary-school students took the tests, and as the media are calling them the "national joint entrance examinations for elementary schools," it might be worth delving a little deeper.
First of all, the GEPTs are in no way compulsory, and the certificate to say one has passed can, at best, be taken into consideration when deciding which students a high school will accept.
Nevertheless, reports are saying that many elementary-school students don't actually want to take the the tests, but are being forced to do so by their parents. This is no doubt a reflection of the mentality of parents who want their children to reach their full potential. However, given the previous pass rate of only 33 percent, two-thirds of these children will be disappointed by their English proficiency.
Second, teachers have in the past tried to get children interested in English by singing and playing games, and by teaching aspects of the language that can be used in everyday life. I have discovered, however, that these activities are gradually being replaced by course content aimed at preparing for proficiency tests.
Fun and games have been abandoned in favor of a string of examinations, and kids are losing interest in English. For parents keen on exposing their children to English at an early age to give them a good start, this should come as a warning.
Compared to this "English test fever," we can look at the 2003 pass rates of technical college students for elementary level GEPTs -- a mere 14 percent. This rather unusual phenomenon shows that the teaching of English in Taiwan leaves a lot to be desired, and that improvements need to be made in many areas.
The Ministry of Education intends to raise the elementary-level passing grade for technical college students to 50 percent by 2007. This is moving in the right direction, but at the same time both the government and the people of Taiwan should think hard about how to reduce "English test fever," and to give our children an environment in which they can study normal, everyday English.