This week is the speaking test for my students. Last year the students memorized a script, but this year I talked them into just asking questions. So I gave the students 10 questions to prepare for , and one question that I ask that they did not get ahead of time. The students pick a number that corresponds to the questions, and I ask them 4, and the last question is the ‘surprise’.
So far I’ve had two nervous breakdowns, and 4 complaints. I also had one student I hadn’t noticed much before because she was quiet and didn’t speak out a lot,do excellent, and a student in my lowest level class surprised me.
Personally I don’t like tests. I agree that they don’t always show the potential or abilities of students. They can be helpful for putting students in a leveled class and for assessment of progress, but they shouldn’t be the only thing students are judged on. The Korean educational system is very test dependent and the stakes are very high. Traditionally the English tests were on reading and listening, but they Korean government is revising The Test— and it is The Test here, to include speaking and writing. Students get one shot to do well, and it doesn’t matter how well they did in class or how hardworking or smart they are. This test is the only thing that matters.
Which is why even though my little test is fairly low stakes, students are very sensitive and stressed out about it. From middle school till high school graduation, their lives revolve around testing.
My co-teacher and I were talking about it at lunch. We both agree that the emphasis on testing is not beneficial, but we were unable to come up with a solution in the 45 minutes we have to eat. It is impossible to untangle the Gordian knot that is the Korean testing culture without also untangling quite a bit of culture and history.
When King Sejong commissioned the creation of Hangul, he did a very radical thing. He made literacy something attainable for everyone, not just the nobles. At the time, there was a test for government service, and it opened up the bureaucracy to anyone who had talent and brains. It was a good system and allowed a little bit of upward mobility. Even now, a lot of Koreans believe the test is a way to keep university entrance open and honest. Yes rich kids get the tutors and academies, and the academies are generating their own controversies, but in the end, having The Test is, in theory, a good way for students from poorer families to get into the best universities and gain upward mobility. In theory.
So I am still trying to figure out how to change a system that isn’t my own, that I see causing a lot of pain for my students, and that I can see the justification for. And lets face it, right now the US system isn’t actually working very well either.
I think though that education here and in America really does need to be reformed, and we need a better way of assessing students to truly reflect their abilities and their strengths.
If you want to know more about King Sejong, a personal hero of mine:
I mean the man even has a UNESCO award in education named after him