Unprofessional and Irresponsible
I’m going to be blunt here. I believe forcing young children to take the STEP Eiken test has a high chance of being pointless, counter-productive, and even irresponsible.
Yesterday I got involved in a debate on Facebook after someone reposted an update from the owner of an English immersion kindergarten announcing one of their six-year-olds had passed the pre-2 Grade of the STEP Eiken test. They also mentioned this same kindergarten had been in the news a while back for having a six year old pass the pre-1 Grade test.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the STEP Eiken test. My wife’s school is an Eiken test centre and I have been involved with various aspects of the test for the last decade. I think it does a perfectly good job of what it was designed to do: certify that (mainly) junior and senior high school students have acquired the grammar and vocabulary they are taught in school. The tests are designed to match up to school years as follows:
Grade 5 Eiken -> finished JHS 1st grade English
Grade 4 Eiken -> finished JHS 2nd grade English
Grade 3 Eiken -> finished JHS 3rd grade English
Grade pre-2 -> mid-SHS English
Grade 2 -> finished SHS English
Grade pre-1 -> university equivalent English
Grade 1 -> high proficiency in English for professional use
The tests seem to be most useful when applying to high school or university, or when working as an English teacher or public servant. It’s been around for a long time, and is probably the best-known English qualification in Japan.
Which brings us to young children.
Many parents, not knowing better, have an impression of Eiken as a general English test. In their eyes, passing Eiken means that someone has a certain English ability. They then decide that it would be good for their children to pass Eiken earlier than usual.
Now, for some students, taking the STEP Eiken test slightly early is not a bad thing. For the right student who is ready, it can be a confidence boost, a way to get used to taking tests, and a way to show parents that students have acquired some English skills.
The problem arises when parents take it too far and push their children into taking it too soon.
There is no point in taking the Eiken test very early. It is mainly used for recommended entry into high schools (passing the Grade 3 or pre-2 test displays a mastery of junior high school English) or universities (Grade 2 shows a mastery of high school English, while pre-1 or 1 show advanced English proficiency).
Passing the test at a very early age confers no advantage, and now that the tests have an expiry date on them just means that students will have to take them again nearer the time they will need to use them.
The only reason I can think of to take tests early is so that parents or schools can brag about it.
It can be stressful and uncomfortable for children to prepare for tests they are not ready for developmentally. Pencil use, writing their name and address, and filling in mark sheets correctly are all difficult for younger children. Beyond Eiken pre-2, the content of the tests takes an academic turn. Questions refer to social and environmental issues. Written and spoken tests expect a certain format for answers. Forcing children to conform to this is wasting time that could be used to learn English more appropriately, through stories, play, and interaction with teachers and peers.
I had a young boy come to an Eiken speaking test once and ask me in beautifully accented English to fill in his test card for him, because he couldn’t write his name and didn’t know his phone number. He failed the test as he didn’t seem to understand that it was a test and couldn’t stay on point. His English was beautiful but he wasn’t ready to take a highly structured test.
Another time I was ‘helping’ a ten-year old boy who had spent a long time in the US with the Eiken 2. As we worked through past papers, it became clear that he didn’t know the concepts, let alone the vocabulary, for a lot of the questions. It was heartbreaking, but at that time I didn’t have the experience or the confidence to stand up to his parents.
I believe schools and teachers have a duty to educate parents about the nature and purpose of tests so that they can make appropriate decisions regarding their children. Failing to do so, in my eyes, makes a teacher or school unprofessional, irresponsible, and even negligent.
There are a number of English tests developed specifically for young children, such as the Cambridge YLE, junior UN Eiken, or junior STEP Eiken tests. Students can also show their skills through performance, in-class assessment, or creating portfolios of their work. With so many appropriate alternatives, please think carefully before putting the wishes of parents or your own commercial interests ahead of what is best for each child.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Are there any good reasons for having very young children take the STEP Eiken?