Sam Thompson

Teaching to the test: an editorial

What do these standardized tests actually prove?

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.

Controversial tests

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).

Test flaws

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.


The only tests worth a damn are when students listen, speak and write something original.

Learning English in Thailand (and other places, too) is just another subject on the syllabus.

The problem with this is by the time these students get to a level of education where you actually need English, you're screwed because you don't know any.

This problem is conveniently ignored because it affects such a small percentage of the student population.

But what is BURIED is the fact that if students were given a good English education from the very start of their lives, then the problems of using English in higher education would affect a much higher percentage of people... and that would be a good thing... and be much LESS of a problem!

So Thailand is stuck near the bottom of the table because it has the foresight of a goldfish!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (22nd February 2016)

I find Sam's article and subsequent comments interesting. Looking at the proficiency tests from an instructor's point of view it may certainly seem that way.

Looking at it from the other side of the coin, as an examiner, however things like, "highly intelligible and exhibits sustained, coherent discourse," do have meaning.

Examples of such discourse are demonstrated at the training sessions for examiners. Then examiners are required to observe examples of test applicants and record their marks. Their marking has to be within the margin of error for the test (usually about 5% overall).

Looking at the test for what it is, a measure of proficiency on a continuum as compared to an absolute summative assessment of learning at the end of course the meanings of the numbers need to be taken with the comments and not just as a stand alone number like a course grade; an error often made in this region.

On a speaking or writing proficiency test there should be no perfect score attainable since in reality there is no perfect speech or prose.

The reality is that anyone who can obtain an IELTS of 7.5, TOEFL (iBT) of 96 (paper score of 590), or Level C2 on the CEFR scale by means of any other valid test is capable of full communication in English and anything above that is just bragging. Below those scores the number is just a number unless you actually read the comments that go with the score obtained by the student.


By Dave, Thailand (3rd February 2016)

Education is now just another commodity and has lost its basic meaning. Education through story telling and how to provide for your tribe is the basis of education. The industrial revolution changed that to a system of finding the best for where ever the human race wants to go next.

So I suspect this current education system of creating a monoculture where everyone must jump these same hurdles is just giving us an indication of the current state of the human race. To much centralised control.

It is refreshing to see other methods of education growing but unfortunately the most populace parts of the world are coming into the middle working classes and have the ability to obtain the technologies of marketers. They are losing their identity.

I have taught IELTS. i found it to be a very good system as our lessons were about current affairs and understanding the world. The markers here in Thailand seemed to pleased to have conversations with Thais about real things. The reading section reflects headlines of the previous year and the writing sections did seem to be relavent to a student needing to understand views within over countries they might be travelling to.

I personally do not like testing but offer students are different point of view to the norm. My favourite subject is Apple. Most of the software being paid for by apple users is available for free using Gnu and freeware. The Apps you find on apple are just made to look prettier. This is just one example.

Knowledge is key and the basis of education. i suspect it is not the tests that are at fault. it is the current misconception that we need governments and big business to solve our problems for us. The people created the current systems. If you want to have a look at some interesting ideas visit

Have fun

By mark , Chantaburi (30th January 2016)

Interesting opinions there Sam.

I taught TOEFL prep classes for about five years and generally enjoyed them. I always found it a hell of a challenge because although TOEFL prep could be a dry old topic, I was constantly looking for 'entertaining' ways to make a 3-hour class (FIVE hours on Sundays) a bit more stimulating than to just plow through a thick test prep book page by page.

Funny, but I was the only teacher at work who ever volunteered to do these classes. Most other teachers tended to shy away from something that often involved in-depth grammar analysis. But I love that stuff. Oh the thought of standing up in front of a group and explaining non-defining clauses and appositive noun phrases LOL

As you rightly say, in terms of the TOEFL test, you could have someone who spoke relatively poor English do very well on the test and vice versa. Teaching TOEFL prep was all about teaching test-taking strategy, NOT improving a student's English.

I bet I had many students who scored 500-525 points on the test (enough to get them into their university of choice at that time) - but still couldn't tell me in simple past tense what they did yesterday.

Interesting times!

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (27th January 2016)

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