‘It’s too early to rely on NEAT’
By Na Jeong-ju
The National English Ability Test (NEAT), a state-administered proficiency exam implemented in June to enhance practical conversation skills among Koreans, is becoming a new trend in English education here.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology will decide on whether to replace the English language section of the annual college entrance exam with NEAT this year. Some universities have said that they will use NEAT scores as a key criterion when selecting new students for the 2013 academic year.
It’s already a booming business for cram schools. They have rushed to open expensive NEAT courses, telling students that they won’t be able to enter their preferred universities, if they don’t prepare for the exam right now.
Developing the exam, the ministry originally sought to cut household spending on private English education and reduce Koreans’ dependence on global proficiency tests, such as TOEIC and TOEFL. But critics say it is already creating many unintended side-effects, and could hamper public English education further if NEAT becomes a must for all college aspirants.
How should the government tackle the problem?
Kim Jeong-ryeol, president of the Korea Association of Foreign Languages Education, advised the ministry to delay a decision on whether to replace the English section of the college entrance exam with NEAT.
“NEAT should be complementary to the College Scholastic Ability Test. There is no need to hurry to decide on the matter,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times. “It’s not too late to adopt NEAT after having more test runs to evaluate its efficacy.”
Kim, an English professor at Korea National University of Education, forecasts that the proficiency test will help students enhance writing and speaking skills, but whether or not to make it compulsory for all college aspirants is a separate matter.
The association is the country’s largest academic society on foreign language education ― it has some 2,000 members, including professors, researchers and school teachers. Kim was selected as its new president last month.
The ministry hopes NEAT will become a key reference for schools and enterprises in evaluating English proficiency in the long term amid concerns over growing costs for taking foreign tests. Officials have said one of the biggest advantages of NEAT is that it will be a lot cheaper than existing tests such as TOEIC.
Ever since TOEIC made its debut here in 1982, numerous Koreans have taken the exam. 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.
Kim said NEAT may undercut the presence of foreign exams to some extent, but it won’t be able to replace them.
“I forecast spending on foreign exams will continue as long as there is no change in the way students learn English at schools,” Kim said. “Students should be encouraged to read English language books and debate in English. They should be given opportunities to talk about their preferred topics in English. That’s how to learn the language.”
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 compile NEAT and mark the exam.
English teachers are also changing their curricula. The ministry has 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 (EBS) in a bid to cool down the early NEAT fever at cram schools.
“People’s zeal for private English education can have positive effects if it is supplementary to public education. It is important to normalize public education first by introducing innovative learning programs,” said the 53-year-old professor.
Speaking about an ongoing investigation into a large-scale admission fraud case involving foreign schools, Kim said the country should regard it as an opportunity to improve educational services.
Prosecutors have found that some wealthy parents fabricated passports and immigration documents so that their children could be enrolled at foreign schools even though they were not qualified. By law, only children of foreign residents and Korean children who have lived overseas for over three years are entitled to enter foreign schools operating here.
“Foreign schools are popular among rich people because they provide globally accepted learning programs, such as the International Baccalaureate. They send their children to the schools because that makes it easier for them to enter prestigious colleges worldwide,” Kim said.
“Of course, the parents who engaged in irregularities should be strictly dealt with. However, we should also think about why they did so and encourage Korean schools to produce good programs.”