A Response to “Tsai Mulling English Test Update for Entrance Exams”

On Monday, November 1, 2021, the Taipei Times reported in an article titled “Tsai Mulling English Test Update for Entrance Exams” that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)  suggested replacing the English part of university entrance exams with proficiency tests.

I am cautiously in favor of such a change.

On the surface, separating English classes from the entrance exam could potentially allow a move toward communicative teaching methods in Taiwan’s public school English classrooms, a change that has been discussed for more than two decades.

The exam washback effect is a strong force in Taiwan, and English teachers (as well as teachers of other tested subjects) have long felt pressure to teach to the exam. The removal of English from the entrance exam would likely be welcomed by many English teachers who are interested in moving beyond traditional teaching to the test.

However, I have concerns about the proposed alternative as well.

In his book on bilingual education in Taiwan, my colleague Dr. Tzu-Bin Lin, professor in the Department of Education at National Taiwan Normal University,  discusses the question of whether every Taiwanese person needs to have a high English proficiency. Allow me to take this question one step further—does every Taiwanese college student need a high English proficiency?

While I wouldn’t say no, I wouldn’t emphatically say yes, either.

My concern is that these proficiency tests will become a gatekeeper to higher education much in the way they have in other parts of the world. Take this example from Khalifa et al. (2016)  from Qatar:

“I did my portfolio and studied IELTS. I tried many times to obtain the grade that they want. When I first gave them my papers, they did not accept me because of IELTS.” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 8).

Assuming that everything in the portfolio met academic entrance requirements, I feel uncomfortable that English was the only barrier for this student to receive a higher education in Qatar. Here is another example:

“The big problem was how to pass the IELTS. I sat for the exam 15 times, and I even went to Bahrain to obtain it but in vain” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 8)

If the change from English on the entrance exam to English proficiency exams provides greater opportunities for students to actually learn to communicate in English, then I am all for it. Developing bilingualism is always a positive thing.

But, if the policy leads to the exclusion of otherwise very talented students from a university education, that would be a very unfortunate development for Taiwan, one which I believe would be detrimental to society.

Reference

Khalifa, B., Nasser, R., Ikhlef, I., Walker, J. S., & Amali, S. (2016). A qualitative study of student attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, outlook, and context in Qatar: Persistence in higher education. Near & Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education, 2, 1–22.