Education these days seems to be all about testing. In the US, the No Child Left Behind Act basically redesigned the entire education system around test results, using funding as leverage to force students in line with federally mandated standards; many students and teachers feel that the tests don't necessarily reflect what is actually being learned.
In Asia, however, my experience seems to show the opposite: your test score IS your academic performance.
In Thai government (and other) schools, it's all about the O-NET, a controversial standardized test given in grades 9 and 12 (Mathayom 3 and 6). To me, those are just another insert-national-standardized-test-here, and to be fair, no one has come up with any better alternative of figuring out a general idea of how students are doing in comparison to one another and "national standards," if such things exist in Thailand.
The far more psychologically damaging tests are, in my view, those imposed on students wanting to move beyond the Thai curriculum (aka, studying abroad).
Such exams include the TOEFL and IELTS (tests accepted for non-native speakers of English at universities in North America and Europe/Australia respectively), the TOEIC (generally used as an English level guideline for hiring), and the good ‘ole fashioned college entrance SAT and similar graduate degree tests (GRE, GMAT, et cetera).
Growing up in the US, the only one I really had to worry about was the SAT, but even then I never bothered studying for it.
Thai students, though, feel a huge pressure to perform well on these tests if they want to attend universities abroad, or even international programs at domestic universities.
Those of you TEFL'ers that have been around for longer than about a week will know all about the huge teaching industry that surrounds students needing a certain score on the tests; sure, it's a great money-maker, and it's great for guys like me that want a decent paying class with among the most motivated students in Thailand... but what are these students really taking away from these classes?
I've been teaching TOEFL/IELTS courses (especially the speaking sections) for a few years now, and find myself increasingly warning students that, just because you can't get a perfect score on such-and-such test, it doesn't mean you can't consider yourself fluent in English (and vice-versa).
The tests certainly serve a purpose, but real-life they are not; in the case of one of the TOEFL speaking sections, for example, students have 60 seconds to tie-together a listening and reading passage to answer a prompt, and organization and time management are paramount to get a good score, alongside being able to not sound like you're so nervous speaking to a computer that you're going to pass out.
That'd be hard for ME to do, and I'm an English major with a master's degree!
Sure, some students are already great in whatever subject area the test covers (here, generally English is the key), and have no problem adapting to the needs of the test. I really feel for the students, though, that completely panic during these high-stakes tests after having studied for them for [often times] months.
Tests ain't cheap
The TOEFL is something like 8,000 THB a pop at the moment, and that's not including the huge course fees students have often paid to cram schools and the like to try to learn how to get the needed score. Students that just can't get over the jitters taking any type of test, even if they're great in normal circumstances, are inevitably made to feel let down and [more importantly in Asia] "lose face."
I have a student in my AP English Language/Composition course that is trying to go to a school in Singapore. She is absolutely mortified at making anything below a perfect score on the once-a-year exam, as she's convinced it will cause her to not get in to the law program she wants to do. As unfortunate as it is, she's probably right; in Asia, it's all about the numbers, and because there are many students able to train themselves to these pass-it-and-you're-done tests, I'm sure it's possible.
However, especially in tests that evaluate things like speaking and writing, even with rubrics it's basically up to whomever is assigned to score you, and the result (in my experience) is often a relatively arbitrary score.
Notwithstanding a listener/reader with a raging hangover evaluating someone's test (and let's be honest here, it happens), and notwithstanding the fact that these tests are designed for takers to NOT get a high score (after all, if you "pass," they get no more of your money)... has anyone actually read those rubrics used to score the TOEFL/IELTS/AP/whatever? They're hilarious.
Here's a quote from the AP essay rubric from my class for the highest score: essays "are especially sophisticated in their explanation and argument or demonstrate particularly impressive control of language."
Here's another quote, this one from the TOEFL speaking rubric for a perfect score: speech is "highly intelligible and exhibits sustained, coherent discourse." What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Hoping for the best
So how can you get a perfect score? Here's what I tell my students: no matter the test, be as confident as you can, and hope for the best. This isn't something an Asian student wants to hear, though; there's a formula to everything, and surely you, teacher, can tell me what it is!
As educators, I think we can all agree that these high-stakes tests are, at best, measuring tools to compare students against an established standard or goal. Is there a better way to determine what a student knows, or how he/she could perform in whatever environment for which the score is required? We can all likely agree this is true.
Problem is... I ain't got no idea.
I hope you enjoyed my blog. If you would like to get in touch or perhaps e-mail me with a question, I would love to hear from you - All the best, Sam Thompson.