Declining Test Scores Revisited

Now that I’ve got a grip on my grading, I can write something original. I want to return to a topic I once posted on – the poor performance of Taiwanese on standardized tests of English.

Over on the Teaching English in Taiwan forum, a heated debate has been going on an about an increasingly complex array of topics. So much is being said that it’s hard to sort out what exactly is going on, but one of the frequently referred to pieces of ‘evidence’ is something along the lines that scores on standardized tests of English are declining in Taiwan – or at least compare poorly with similar Asian nations.

Let me make this clear – there is no decline in English test scores in Taiwan. Nor are test scores in Taiwan meaningfully different from scores obtained in other Asian nations.

I have heard this claim made repeatedly by members of Taipei’s foreign business community. That’s fine. They’re businessmen, and while they sometimes make decisions based on bad information, they know they do this. The problem is that anyone claiming this probably doesn’t know anything about language testing, and the people referring to this data over on are language teachers.

Fair enough, they’re teachers at commercial language schools, or as Jack Richards once put it, “language informants” rather than teachers. Why would you expect them to have detailed knowledge about language testing? But this is the point I’ve been trying to make at various times. Education is increasingly a technical subject. It may not necessarily have to be that way, but the forces of modern life are pushing it that way. More and more, educators are being dragged into topics that demand a command over a vast and complex body of knowledge. Technical mastery of classroom knowledge is not enough to make judgments on the situations now encountered by teachers.

A case in point is the English language proficiency of Taiwanese and how best to promote it. There are all kinds of opinions about how well Taiwanese speak English. Similarly, the role of native English speaking teachers in promoting this is a hotly debated topic. In fact, these are issues that everyone in the language teaching industry has probably been asked about at one time or another by students, parents, or their friends. And everyone has an opinion on it. But is it an informed opinion or is the same as the one we can get reading the newspaper or hanging out with our buddies?

Much of what passes for the opinion on language teaching and policy can one by one be reduced to myth, anecdote, or simply factoid about topics related to Linguistics, language teaching, or culture policy.

And in case you wanted to see it again, here is the post about the supposed decline in test scores that I referred to earlier.


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The article you quote says this: “More significant is the distribution of scores across the subscales of these tests.” Actually, for the candidates taking the IELTs test, what matters is the overall result. Schools have little interest in each result for the 4 skills. Thus there is confusion here when you state “More significant” because this simply isn’t true. When we look at overall scores the fact is that Taiwan ranks at the bottom.

However, it is true for candidates applying for work. Take nurses, for example. They need to score a ‘6.5’ band score overall, but a ‘7’ for speaking because of the importance of this skill to their work. And just for your info, IELTs is growing in importance in the US, with around 700 American universities and institutions recognising IELTS, including seven of the eight ‘Ivy League’ universities, CGFNS and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Paul, Thank you for your comment. It’s always a good thing to promote IETSL awareness. IETSL is a very strong test that tends to get ignored by candidates interested in North American universities. I’m glad to see you continuing in your efforts to make Taiwanese aware of this.

Your comment, on the other hand, confuses the aggregate mean of scores across the sample with variation across individual scores. My post referred to the former and has nothing to do with the latter.


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