Cram schools turning to NEAT to boost revenue
By Na Jeong-ju
Private cram schools are rushing to set up more courses on the National English Ability Test (NEAT) as the government is making its last-ditch efforts to ensure smooth implementation of the TOEIC-style state-administered exam.
Parents are also showing greater interest in the test as the government is seeking to replace the English language section of the annual college entrance exam with NEAT, an Internet-based exam.
People can already feel the fever in Daechi-dong in southern Seoul, where a number of popular cram schools, or hagwon, are located. Some schools even changed their names and curricula to attract more students to their NEAT courses.
“We promote ourselves as the best NEAT school in Seoul,” Kim Yong-myn, a 32-year-old cram school teacher said. “A growing number of middle and high school students are enrolling to take NEAT courses in anticipation that getting high NEAT scores will be important to enter their favored universities.”
Kim said less than 60 students took NEAT lessons last year at his school, but the number of applicants more than tripled this year.
NEAT is surely becoming a new trend in English education here. Some experts cautiously predict that it could undercut the presence of such globally-accepted proficiency tests as TOEIC and TOEFL here. On the flip side, that means that NEAT could become a new source of revenue for cram schools, the villains behind the growing household burden for private tutoring.
“It is quite embarrassing to see that cram schools are providing lessons on NEAT even when there are no principles on the test,” an education ministry official said. “I once saw a NEAT workbook used by a cram school for lessons. That was just full of cut and paste material from a TOEIC book on sale.”
According to the ministry, there will be three different versions of NEAT — one for adults and two for high school students. Pilot exams have been taken place to ensure smooth implementation and an error-free scoring system.
The test for students will make its debut in June and the one for adults in September.
The ministry will decide later this year on whether to replace the English-language section of the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) with NEAT.
Officials hope that the implementation of NEAT will change the way students learn English here. It is now developing 100 study models that will be used as reference material for schools in teaching speaking and writing skills.
English teachers are also changing the curriculum. Last year, the ministry opened online courses for teachers on how to teach writing and speaking.
It is also seeking to provide NEAT lessons for free through the state-run Educational Broadcasting Service beginning late February in a bid to cool down the early NEAT fever at private cram schools.
The Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE), which will administer the test, plans to publish textbooks for applicants and set up an Internet site, at which they can utilize study materials for free, in the latter half of this year, according to the ministry.
Tailored exam for Koreans
Still, the government’s moves feared to prompt hagwon to raise stakes on NEAT, resulting in greater tutoring costs for students.
“The primary of goal of developing NEAT is to address concerns about growing household spending on English education,” said Park Jay-sik, an activist who has provided free online English lessons. “However, what has happened shows that the state-run exam could trigger greater zeal for English among parents and students and push educational costs higher. It also can be another burden for students preparing for college admission.”
Officials have said one of the biggest advantages of NEAT is that it will be a lot cheaper than existing tests like TOEIC.
Ever since TOEIC made its debut here in 1982, numerous Koreans have taken the exam and the number is still on the increase. Domestic organizations, mostly Seoul-based universities, have attempted to develop tests to replace TOEIC to little avail. Industry sources say the number of South Korean TOEIC takers is close to 2 million each year.
Adding to concerns is a lack of experience among government agencies in conducting an all-English proficiency test. To address the problem, the education ministry plans to create a pool of 5,000 English teachers nationwide by 2015 to write NEAT and to mark the exam.
“To ensure a successful debut of the test, we’ve activated after-school programs at schools. That’s also aimed at relieving household spending on private education,” another education official said. “Once NEAT is put in place next year, it will bring about revolutionary changes in English education here.”
Changes are already occurring.
Last year, seven state-run and private universities said they will use NEAT scores as a key criterion in selecting new students for the 2013 academic year.
Applicants for the seven schools next year must submit NEAT scores to gain admission. They are Gangneung-Wonju National, Kongju National, Daejin, Dongseo, Pukyong National, Changwon National and Korea Maritime universities.
Boon for cram schools?
Schools are adapting themselves fast to the new test.
“Many schools lack sufficient staff able to teach writing and speaking at the moment. However, all curricula will be altered once the test becomes a must,” a high school teacher in Seoul said. “Most people don’t expect NEAT to become a popular test like TOEIC in the short term, but parents and students are paying greater attention to the test because the government wants it to replace the CSAT’s English section with NEAT.”
Despite the government’s efforts to reduce the costs of English education, NEAT is expected to be a boon for cram schools, experts say.
A recent survey showed 54.4 percent of parents plan to continue paying the same amount of tuition at private institutes for their children’s English education, while 37.6 percent answered that they would increase their spending. Only 8 percent said they wanted to decrease their expenditure.
When asked why they want to spend such an amount, a half of parents said they believed that their children’s English would improve in relation to how much they pay. More than 20 percent of parents said because they were not in a position to teach their children at home and 16 percent said because they were afraid their children would lag behind others.
“The survey means there are a lot of parents who believe that their children’s English ability is proportional to the amount of money they put into private education,” Park, the activist, said.