English Speaking Test Questions of Dissimilar Difficulty

Sunday August 23, 2009

I recently administered a speaking test to Korean students at the English language "academy" [1] where I work. Each student, individually, is given just one question to which they must respond. The first four questions were of this type:

"Which do you like better, a bicycle or a bus? Why do you like it better?"

A bus or a subway, a ship or an airplane, reading a book or watching a movie. Choose one and give two reasons or examples to support your choice. Then, inexplicably, the questions changed to include this:

"You study history at school. Why do you think you have to study history?"

This is not fair. The questions are ostensibly all of equal difficulty, differing only to maintain an equivalently novel testing environment for each student. But for this question, instead of just picking one of two words that they just heard, the student needs to provide some justification for established and accepted educational policy, and do so in such a way that he or she can go on to provide two further reasons in support of that thesis. To do this well would be difficult even for some educational administrators.

I thought of Kurt Vonnegut: "History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again."

And then I smiled and kept asking questions from the list I had been given.

[1] "Academy" is in quotes because it is a grievous, yet perhaps the best, gloss for the Korean word 학원 (hagwon). I don't think a perfect analogue exists outside of Korea. It's a private after-school institute where students go twice a week for three-hour classes.

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