Assessment Part 1 – Being Cruel to be Kind!


Before I start I should point out that what I’m really talking about here is testing in Korea, well actually testing in the two schools I’ve worked at in Korea. However, from discussions with friends working in Korea, and other teachers throughout Asia, it seems like the problem is much more widespread than the school I work in. I should probably also point out that I’m not saying problems with testing are only apparent in Asia, it’s just most of the teachers I talk to on this issue are based in Asia.

O.k. disclaimers over!

In my experience, the problem with testing and assessment here is that it is done purely to receive a score. Students go into an exam, they take the exam (in my case a 2 minute speaking test), they leave the exam, they wait a week, they are given a score and finally they complain or are happy about the score. The students often don’t see the test paper once the final bell rings, no feedback is given, no areas for improvement suggested, they are just ranked and placed on a chart so they can see how well/badly they are doing. If this was just once in a student’s career, for say, entering university, then fine, I could understand, but that’s not the case. This monotonous process seems to be happening over and over and over and over and over. All the way through a student’s school life, they are tested, given a score, ranked and then move on. What the heck is the point? It takes 1 month out of a 7 month time table every year and I just can’t figure out what is being achieved other than forcing students into undue stress.

So the students know they’re failing? But they don’t know why or what parts they are failing.

So a student knows they are doing well? Are they really going to know they are doing well in conversation class by reproducing a script that has likely been written for them?

So a teacher can see where the class needs to improve? All the teachers get is a sheet with students’ scores on.

To improve the students knowledge? The students cram for one week, don’t sleep, regurgitate the knowledge, and then promptly forget it again 24 hours later.

Unfortunately, it seems this has happened so many times that all anyone now cares about is this pointless, meaningless, score! When I introduced the new format of speaking test to my students this semester the negative response from both co-teachers and students was overwhelming because they could not think beyond the test to get a score culture that is so ingrained.

To summarise the issue, the students had always been asked by their conversation teachers to go away, prepare to answer some pre-made questions, go into a room, reproduce the script they had memorized and then get a score. What mostly happened was that the students went away with the questions, the students then went to hakwons or, if their parents could speak English, to their parents, got a script written for them, which they memorized and regurgitated. They were then told they were great at speaking English and everyone was happy! Test done, high scores achieved! This is how it had always been for them and this is how they wanted it.

The speaking test format I suggested involved copying the new NEAT exams that are being introduced by the Korean government. There are 4 types of production questions, the students don’t know the questions before hand and they would only have around 10 seconds to answer. When I explained the format to my co-teachers and students I explained the following benefits:

–          It is good practice for an exam (or similar exam) students will likely have to take in the future.

–          I will provide the students with feedback letting them know exactly what area they need to improve on for future speaking exams.

–          It is actually testing their ability to converse, or at least produce, the English language.

–          To summarize, it is actually useful for them (I think).

I was met with the following objections to changing the format:

–          But asking them to produce language is not fair as it benefits students who have lived abroad.

–          Could you (the student speaking to me) do it in Korean?

–          It’s too hard for them (bear in mind my students are almost the highest level in Korea).

–          Not telling the students the questions before hand means their answers won’t be as good so the average score will be lower.

Both my students and co-teachers were upset by the changes. The thing is, my students are first grade high school. The score does not go on their official record that universities will see and the classes are mixed ability so it doesn’t affect the classes they will be put in but it’s all they can think about. Their score, at this stage, is really quite meaningless. But, no matter how many times I explained the benefits, they could not see the test as a positive experience as opposed to a score giving procedure. From speaking to other educators it seems I’m not alone in struggling against such a test giving culture.

I really think this is such a shame. There are so many positive benefits I believe conducting a speaking test can have for our students, to provide a few:

–          It can be a useful chance to practice exam skills.

–          It can provide feedback on what they need to improve for the ‘real thing’.

–          If provided with informative feedback it can improve confidence.

–          It can inform the teacher what need working on (after just one day of tests I know I need to do more work on prepositions!).

–          If we are really testing our students, and they are successful, they will feel a huge sense of accomplishment. If my students are successful in this test (which I genuinely believe they will be as it is designed for their level) they may really start believing they can converse in English (which they can). I don’t believe students would get the same sense of achievement by regurgitating a script their hakwon teacher wrote for them.

To conclude I think testing in Korea, and from what I understand many other educational systems around the world, really need to start thinking about what they are hoping to achieve with their assessment. We need to consider questions such as: Where are the benefits for the students? Where is the feedback going to come from? What are the students’ achieving? How are they going to achieve it?

If we do this perhaps we can start swinging the test giving culture into a useful experience for all concerned.

I’d really love to hear about other people’s experiences with administering tests, especially if you’ve managed to get students or co-teachers on board with the experience over results philosophy. Also, it would be great to hear about any other ideas for implementing meaningful assessment.

Tomorrow I’m going to post how I went about setting up the speaking tests that do, so far, seem to have been quite successful, in other words, my suggestion for implementing a meaningful speaking test (focused on Korea).

Also, you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

In the meantime I recommend checking out the following resources:


03/09/2012 09:10

I completely agree with your assessment of any speaking tests that involve only memorizing and regurgitating. These tests do nothing to promote conversational skills, focusing only on pronunciation and clarity of speech (I’m assuming) rather than listening, comprehension, and responding in a timely manner. And to not receive any feedback whatsoever is a complete waste of time.

Teaching at university, I have all my students answer questions chosen at random, based on what they have learned over the course of the semester. They know all the possible question types before hand (approximately 30-40), but they will choose which ones they answer from a cup at the beginning of the test and I give additional bonus follow-up questions. Some find this challenging, but if they are given similar tests in middle school and high school, they would be much better prepared for it and be able to enter university with a far greater ability to express their ideas and opinions than they do now.

There is something broken with a system that thinks challenging students is a bad idea because it will effect their current “high scores”.
Many students in university expect A’s for mediocre work. In Canada I was happy to get above an 80, and to get a 90 or higher was awesome.

I say raise the bar and you will be pleasantly surprised at how many are able to meet and exceed your expectations.

03/09/2012 17:27

Hi DK!

First of all, thanks for your comment, it’s always appreciated. That’s really interesting to hear that you employ similar productive speaking tests at university. I wonder if you meet any kind of resistance from the students when you explain the procedure to them?

I completely agree that by raising the bar and challenging our students people might be pleasently surprised at what they’re really capable of.

Thanks again,


04/09/2012 09:27

hello, Alex!
I partially agree with what you’re saying about assessments.yes, right, for the test papers students just get a score, but it’s essential for them to write correctly. and this is the only possibility we have to check their spelling and partially their grammar. I had some surprises with my high school students. some of them have a good pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary but when it comes to writing they have serious problems. there was such a big difference that I couldn’t believe the test papers belonged to the same students that were able to speak in English for hours. each test paper has more parts and it’s easy both for you and your students to identify where the problems are. though it’s difficult to discuss with each of your students we usually tell them where the problems are. regarding the speaking tests, you’re right, we have to focus on encouraging them to react to some challenges and not just reproduce the phrases they have learn. I tell my students to try using English while speaking to their friends, their colleagues, their penfriends because this is the best possibility to get over their shyness and produce instant messages.

05/09/2012 03:39

Being cruel to be kind,

Is the same make me feel how we were born under edu-system, with no more applicable at all,
Meanwhile, this article discussed seems what is likely to happen in our country.


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