Impact of Current Approach to English Language Testing in South Korea and Washback
The section above has demonstrated how language testing can be misrepresented in various ways. For the researcher and test designer, language testing has the aim of providing reliable and valid measures of specific language constructs such as speaking, writing and so forth, and those involved in test design have a dual concern - defining the construct to be measured, and deciding upon the best way of defining or delineating that particular construct. However, this concern is not typically shared by test-takers or those who administer a gatekeeping function based on test results: these end-users generally take scores for granted, and mostly place trust in the validity and reliability of the testing exercise. This is particularly the case for large-scale language proficiency tests which tend to be deployed across the globe for a variety of purposes.
However, the life of the test does not begin and end in these scores, but instead it ripples back to language classrooms, where much time is spent in test preparation, and foreword to the school, university or workplace, where decisions are based around test scores often without discussion or understanding of what can be extrapolated from the results, as the newspaper articles cited above help illustrate. Test designers are aware of such effects, and much research has been conducted on the (i) washback and (ii) impact of language tests (Wall 2005; Spolsky 1997; Alderson and Wall 1993).
Washback can be defined as how a test influences the activities which go on in a language classroom before testing, or what Alderson and Wall describe as something that ‘compels teachers and learners to do things they would not necessarily otherwise do because of the test’ (Alderson and Wall 1993, p. 115, their emphasis). Washback can be positive and negative in terms of the types of changes in a curriculum that a test can induce. For example, incorporating spoken interaction into a test is likely to lead to washback in the classroom, and encourage teachers and learners to place more emphasis on the skills involved in dialogue, listening comprehension and creating appropriate spontaneous utterances. But washback can also be detrimental to learners’ competences, by focussing for example on inauthentic aspects of a test or indeed on how to pass the test itself. In a wide-ranging review of the empirical investigation of the washback of standardised EFL tests on EFL education in Korea, Choi shares survey data on the washback in elementary, secondary and university language classrooms. For instance, one specific aspect of the negative test washback in classrooms of standardised EFL tests includes dedicating extensive periods of time in class to test preparation strategies such as how to prepare for multiple choice examinations, so depriving students ‘of crucial opportunities to learn to acquire productive language skills’ (2008, p. 58).
As well as the concept of washback, the term ‘impact’ is helpful in understanding how tests can cast their influence on society at large, not just the language classroom. Diane Wall describes a test’s impact as ‘any of the effects that a test may have on individuals, policies or practices within the classroom, the school, the educational system and society as a whole’ (1997, p. 291). In her meta-survey, Choi (2008, p. 58) describes the impact on young learners in Korea who are forced to take EFL tests despite their young age, resulting in a ‘narrowly instrumental motivation in their language learning,’ rather than focussing on enjoyable and age-appropriate communicative activities. In a sample of 100 5th grade elementary school children, the pupils were familiar with nine discrete English language proficiency tests; 89 children had taken a standardised EFL test, with 84 per cent of this group citing encouragement from a private institute instructor (45.9 per cent) or parent (37.7 per cent) as the reason for taking the test. Choi notes that twelve of the children had even taken the TOEFL, far beyond their language proficiency and cognitive abilities: ‘This mismatch between the difficulty of the test input and the ability level of young test-takers will lead to invalid consequences, let alone unreliable statistical results [...] This finding raises ethical issues regarding children’s right to learn in an appropriate manner’ (2008, p. 53).
The efforts of Korean students and their parents, within the national curriculum as well as within the private education sector, are all initially targeted at succeeding in the Korean version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test/College Scholastic Ability Test (KSAT or CSAT), which determines entrance to South Korea’s universities, and, in turn, students’ employability, future salary level, social status and even marriage prospects. For outsiders, these stakes seem extraordinarily high: Choi (2008, p. 55) describes the KSAT as ‘the most important high-stakes test in Korean education.’ The English language component is mandatory, along with Korean and mathematics. Beyond the KSAT, Korean students are faced with the prospect of an inevitable series of English language proficiency tests. Whilst this experience is shared with students in other countries in the region and indeed further afield, as described above South Korean companies require graduate applicants to submit their language test scores, and view such scores as an
‘essential prerequisite for employment’ (Choi 2008, p. 41). Choi (2008, p. 40) describes how ‘almost all Korean citizens are aware of the overwhelming washback effects of EFL tests in Korea,’ and asserts that ‘under such an enormous impact, there is no denying that virtually all EFL instructors teach to these tests.’ This consistent and widespread ‘teaching to the test,’ or in other words, washback, means that the tests themselves rather than communicative language needs define the English language curriculum and shape its delivery.
Some specific aspects of washback and impact in the English learning context in Korea are visible in the phenomenon of repeat language testing, the attitude to and use of textbooks and the perceived role of the teacher in test preparation. Repeat language testing has become a norm in South Korea, to the extent that Korean students are the most frequent repeat international test- takers in some tests. The financial commitments involved in repeat testing are considerable, and visitors to any bookstore in Korea will see a large section on English language teaching and testing, with a multitude of choices particularly in workbooks specifically geared to the various English language proficiency tests mentioned in this chapter as well as to the KSAT and other standardised tests. The creators of the TOEIC test, the Educational Testing Service (ETS 2014), share statistics regarding students who have previously taken the Listening and Reading Test. In 2013, the majority of TOEIC test-takers had already taken the test at least once (77 per cent), and half have taken it three times or more previously (49.5 per cent). Korean students top the international list of multiple TOEIC tests at 85 per cent, compared with 79 per cent in Japan. Just 9 per cent of TOEIC test-takers had repeated the test in Chile and Egypt.
Whilst some communicative language teaching approaches have been integrated into classroom practice in Korea, the textbook occupies a primary role in terms of specifying the start and end point of a curriculum, its learning outcomes, activities and materials. If textbooks are supplemented, it is generally through use of another textbook rather than, say, through authentic materials. The centrality of the textbook may be understood within a Confucian-influenced educational system: the textbook is selected by the teacher and trusted as a key means of succeeding in the examination. The teacher’s role in Korean society, within the concept of the ‘Confucian trinity’ of king, teacher and father —Mgunsabu-ilche), means that they are
respected individuals who should decant knowledge to their students as well as act as moral role-models in a transmission model of education. The role of the foreign teacher in this regard can be rather suspect; parents worry for instance that teachers from overseas may not fully grasp the importance of test performance. Jeon (2010) describes how students did not consider the English class taught by a native-speaker as a ‘real class,’ as what she taught was not on the test (i.e., speaking), unlike Korean English teachers who are responsible for grammar and translation teaching. The pressure on teachers to maintain a high student success rate in examinations is considerable. Online training with tips and guidance for passing the tests is a growing market. The online hagwon (as described earlier, a type of private language tutoring service, sometimes described as a ‘cram school’) Megastudy is listed on the Korean Stock Exchange (Ripley 2013). The internet teaching ‘phenomenon’ (ibid) Kim Ki- hoon earns USD $4 million per year teaching English online, with lectures sold at $4 per hour. Such ‘educational sideshows’ are becoming a thorn in the side of the public education system, which cannot afford to keep up with developments in private language academies (ibid.) or meet the expectations of parents and students.