Though I’m not currently an English teacher, as a past teacher of literature I stumbled upon this video of the Korean SAT English Exam and I noticed a few things about the questions and the teachers reactions.
Many of them ask “why” have a test like this for a second language? They don’t understand the purpose or why it’s so hard. The students writing the Korean SAT are trying to be admitted to universities. What will they be reading if they study at a higher level? It doesn’t really matter, because the test isn’t judging whether or not they can necessarily speak or read English, but rather if they are able to process and (quite possibly create) information at an academic level.
Regardless of whether or not they study English, the majority of their thesis work or readings will be in academic English and requires a very high level of vocabulary in order to truly understand academic writing. For the majority of people this might considered “academic dribble” or insanely over-complex, long-winded, and abstract.
Culturally speaking this is a difference between university education in the English speaking world vis-á-vis other areas of the world that follow traditional academic models. Many regions of the world continue to see university studies as elite and a smaller section of society. Why permit barely academics to study at higher levels if their language skills (in their native language or otherwise) are not upp to snuff?
In American, Canadian, and some British universities, the concept of academia really has been transferred to higher levels, i.e. masters or doctorate studies. But wait, why is that? It wasn’t so long ago that university wasn’t a rite of passage, or an exclusive opportunity. Over the last hundred or so years, or maybe even in the last fifty years for some, academia has seen a watered down version of undergraduate degrees. It begs the question, how does my Bachelors degree from 2008 compare to that of 1970 or even now in 2019? Have the requirements or expectations shifted? My gut reaction is, yes… dramatically.
Reactions are “when are they ever going to use this real life?” Well therein lies the cultural misunderstanding; the purpose of university education is specialised, theoretical, and research focused. It’s not supposed to be for everyone, despite it being a populous shift. Upper secondary education has been watered down, which then forces undergraduate studies to be watered down and it trickles down all the way. Where does the puck stop, so to speak? Where does education say “thou shallt not pass”? It’s a tricky question, and as an educator myself, it’s a moral dilemma. It comes down to access of knowledge or access to education.
If many of my former students were to take this Korean exam and expect to study at university, their receipt of a good result would tantamount to them being cleared for study in any area. Without this kind of fluency or at least vocabulary, they would be setting themselves up for either failure at their uni programme, or an immense pressure to increase fluency in a very short period, which all language teachers roll their eyes at, because learning a language takes time.
Going back to what the teachers asked, why would someone need to know this? Well that’s exactly the point! What is the purpose of a university education? Is it to gain knowledge, or to prepare oneself for work? I think I’m opening up a can of worms here, but I think you can surmise the answer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be elitist, but sorry-not-sorry. I can only reflect on my own education, my own experience, and what I experienced at university (in different countries by the way). I tend to be against standardised tests at a lower level of education, but for university studies I’m all for it. Not only does it create a realistic expectation for what is required to study and be successful (not an economic machine of the university, by the way), but also filters out people that might be better suited to study other areas, at least temporarily or until they change their mind and commit themselves in a different way.
It’s easy for me to pass judgement on these people in retrospect, but would I have passed an exam at age 17 like this? I can only speculate, and despite being more than ten years older, I wrote a past exam for fun, and I received a high score. That makes sense, since I was a good student, have taught English at an upper secondary level (both for natives and ELL students), I already studied at university and at higher levels, but I also think I would have been able to pass back then. It might have been hard, but it would have been a real eye-opener for me to see if university really was for me. A good measure of if my language ability is suited to academic reading and more in depth study potential.
Is university a protected places of thinkers, philosophers, researchers, or a rite of passage for a particular culture. What do you think?