The purpose of learning English as a second language in New York State is to pass the NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test). The purpose for international students to learn English for study abroad in the United States is to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). To study abroad in other English speaking countries, future international students must pass similar tests: TOEIC, IELTS, TEFL, etc.
But, wait a minute. Isn’t that backward. Isn’t the purpose of these exams to test the students’ proficiency in their use of the English language? Certainly, that makes sense and is the purported intention. However, if this were the case, there would not be such a singular dedication to preparing students for the express purpose of passing these exams. These tests have become so important to the students’ future that there simply isn’t time for them to actually acquire the English language. If they try to do that, they risk falling short of the scores they need, when they need them, in order to proceed on their chosen educational trajectory.
ESL courses are now almost exclusively test preparation courses that leave the students to their own devices when it comes to actually developing proficiency in communicating in English. Governments and educational institutions have placed such importance on these artificial barometers of language skill that the teachers and their students can hardly be blamed. After all, it’s far easier for a functionary of a state government or university to look at test scores than it would be for them to accurately determine whether or not students will be capable of handling the workload in their new language.
So, what to do? First, let’s recognize that test prep as language learning is a problem. The language is not being acquired as a result of test preparation. Then let’s take the task of determining a student’s future abilities out of the hands of politicians and educational administrators and put it back where it belongs: in the capable hands of the teachers. It is the constant informal assessment of the students’ needs by the teacher and the students themselves, accompanied by correction and self-correction that lead to language proficiency. No test prep program, however comprehensive, can replace this eternal order of things.
By John DePonte