The Ministry of Education reportedly wants to include English comprehension and translation tests on the Basic Competence Test for junior high school students in a few years.
If the report is true, it is not likely to please parents who took to the streets recently with calls for the implementation of 12-year compulsory education. It will, however, undoubtedly increase pressure on students.
I am not opposed to including English listening comprehension and translation tests aimed at improving the English proficiency of high school students before 12-year compulsory education is introduced. After all, language is the foundation of knowledge and communication. Language exams are meant to push students toward an admirable goal — learning a foreign language.
However, the ministry must ensure that tests are administrated fairly and resolve the discrepancy in educational resources between urban and rural areas.
I have previously served as an examination consultant with public language education institutions and have on several occasions prepared and graded Chinese and English tests for college entrance examinations.
I was struck by the language proficiency gap, especially in English, between students from rural and urban areas.
Since I have not taken a deeper look at the reasons for the gap, I do not want to overinterpret the matter. However, once, when I was invited to review exams for the National Language Competition and took the opportunity to visit a high school in Taitung County, I found that the quality of teaching, digital learning opportunities, family income and language education in rural areas lagged behind that of cities.
Such differences in learning resources may be the reason that students in rural areas tend to perform worse on language exams, particularly in English, than their urban peers.
In my experience, the best way to improve one’s English listening and speaking skills is to have native speakers as teachers or to take online classes.
Although the number of foreign teachers seems to have increased over the years, they remain concentrated in the metropolises on the west coast, where there are more teaching opportunities to chose from.
The gap in digital learning between urban and rural areas is even wider.
Until last year, the household Internet access rate on the west coast was nearly 30 percent higher than on the east coast, with the gap between Taipei City (with the highest access rate) and Taitung County (with the lowest) more than 50 percent.
While the access rate exceeded 99 percent in the biggest cities, only 29 percent of rural households in Hualien and Taitung counties had access to the Internet.
More than 80,000 low-income households did not even own computers.
Although for the past three years the education ministry has promoted digital learning in rural areas and seen results, the gap in digital resources between rural and urban areas remains substantial and cannot be narrowed in the short term.
Thus, the impact of the discrepancy in resources — both in terms of teachers and Internet access — to teach languages must not be ignored.
When Chinese composition was first included in the basic competence test, many parents worried that the education gap between rural and urban areas would affect grades.
Although Chinese is the national language, composition involves developing skills in logic and other factors. One’s ability to use the language will not guarantee good composition scores.