Learning English through hacking
TOEIC is Theft of English for Internal Commercialization to publishers and language institutes. TOEIC is Trophy of English for International Competition to 2 million Korean test-takers.
When prosecutors indicted five staff from the Hackers Education Group last week for violating copyrights, it argued it has become a scapegoat.
The other competitors allegedly mobilized employees, hired students, and utilized audio recorders, and cameras hidden in pens to smuggle out test questions.
Hackers deployed about 50 employees for each test, and came away with test kits by using hi-tech equipment from 2007 to 2011. Some even took the exam to memorize the questions. Following the test, it posted the same questions on its website before taking them down the next day. It stole 49 TOEIC and 57 TEPS tests over the past five years. The teaser advertising impressed the score-hungry applicants. Hacker books outsell rival publications.
For publishers and institutes, producing test kits is critical. They must analyze beforehand the format of the questions to outsell other books, out-recruit students and outrival competitors.
Seoul’s SAT instructors went on a ``business trip’’ in 2010 to Bangkok. They disguised themselves as test takers, stole the test kits, and relayed them to students waiting for the same exam hours later in Seoul. The time difference between the two capitals is enough for local test-takers to learn questions in advance. The ETS cancelled a TOFEL test in Seoul for the testing computer breakdown in 2010.
Many institutes often concoct academic credentials of instructors, allegedly graduates of U.S. Ivy League schools. Several thousands are purportedly ready to pay for proxy testing.
The hide-and-seek game will continue unless test organizers, including the Educational Testing Service in the United States, make public the kits. Their non-disclosure principle will not change. They seek to maximize profits, and they do not want possible public embarrassment in Korea, one of the two most lucrative markets worldwide.
Hackers is claiming it’s innocent of any copyright violation as it is part of alleged routine research to gauge the latest examination trends. It argues that the ETS does not use the same questions in the next test.
It enjoyed a thriving business of nearly $95 million in sales and about $30 million in income last year, an enviable feat for an 8-year-old firm.
The foreign media also featured the episode, questioning Korean students’ genuine English proficiency and depicting the nation as a hotbed of copycats. A Seoul prosecutor said Hackers spoiled students by justifying any means to help them get high scores.
Even top students are skeptical of their proficiency. Korea ranked bottom in international comparisons. This illustrates English is a difficult language for Koreans to learn. The sentence structure between Korean and English is the opposite.
Recruiters surprisingly find wide discrepancies between test scores and the proficiency of employees. They discount the scores by up to 20 percent. Fresh employees must undergo in-house language trainings.
Three answers are plausible in explaining the gap between scores and proficiency.
First, the standardized English tests have flaws in grading test takers. Theoretically, the exam itself is scientific as it checks four language skills ― speaking, writing, reading and listening. About 10,000 test words are the heart of the English vocabulary.
Second, candidates and local publishers sometimes outsmart test organizers as they study patterns and trends of questions just to get high scores. Test takers are sometimes more skillful in analyzing patterns than English proficiency itself. Even without reading the questions, they often know the correct answers. A joke is that test organizers ``copy’’ the mock test kits Korean institutes publish.
Third, many people stop practicing English after the tests. Without regular use, they are unable to hone skills in English, just as would be true if players of musical instruments or golfers stopped practicing, according to Park Eung-kyuk, the president of the state-funded Korea Institute of Public Administration and an avid reader of an English daily.
Recruiters have devised their own way of grading the real proficiency of job seekers. Applicants are asked to write an English essay, express views on current topics or to read an English daily or magazine during an interview.
Recruiters know that many top scorers have difficulty in reading English newspapers although avid readers can score high in the standardized tests.
Many of the top scorers are unable to use the 10,000 words they learned for the standardized tests, and unable to read an English daily using the same 10,000 words TOEIC, TOEFL, TEPS use. A study shows that top scorers can speak only 1,000 words, 10 percent of the vocabulary they learned. They struggle in making PowerPoint English presentations and writing emails and letters.
TOEIC, TOEFL and TEPS are often likened to a driving test. Those who pass the written tests are unable to drive a car until they pass the road test. The excellent scorers in the standardized English tests cannot be fluent until they practice daily. They need patience and enthusiasm to make it a habit of learning English for proficiency. Learning English is impossible through hacking test questions.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.