Standardized Exams: Ends or Means?

We Just Want a High TOEFL Score!

Students often need solid TOEFL scores to study abroad, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Naturally, this need – and ambition – often makes reaching a certain number on the TOEFL exam as the goal of their English studies.

Unfortunately, sometimes these imperfect standardized exams – all attempts to measure language ability of English language learners – become a goal in and of itself. Consequently,  some students and stressed parents want all their English classes to primarily focus on test preparation. “We just need a good TOEFL score” mantra can lead to pressure on private high schools and language programs to exclude material unrelated directly to the influential ETS exam.

Let me suggest that this worshipping at the altar of standardized test scores can distort, even pervert, English language instruction. While excellent, specialized test preparation courses serve a vital purpose, they should be small parts of a larger English curriculum. The main focus of language programs, especially in high schools,  should be helping students develop authentic language skills so they can actually read, write, listen, and speak English – both inside and outside the classrooms and away from multiple choice exams.

Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, and Jack London may or may not appear on the next TOEFL test, but high school and older English students should be exposed to their writings. We do not want to throw away our humanistic cultural heritage and reduce our English and ESL classes into mere test training. The TOEFL exam is a means, not an end in and of itself.

Likewise, we need – as English teachers – to remember that ideas matter, celebrate our dynamic language,  and avoid the temptation to become grammar fundamentalists or mere language technicians. Learning English, a global tongue, allows students to move beyond the narrow confines of their local language and more easily join the global village. Let’s keep those larger goals – and the humanities – in the English curriculum.

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