Testing times

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 12:00am

As the Professional Teachers' Union announced further action to oppose a benchmark test for English language teachers, the SAR's universities are trying to develop a joint assessment scheme to show their graduates' language proficiency, first in English and later in Chinese.

The universities' move is an admission that their graduates can no longer be assumed to have a reasonable command of the two languages. Indeed, all universities have been running remedial English courses for their students. What they plan to do is to develop a common form of exit certificate so that employers can more readily gauge the language skills of their recruits.

There was a time when anyone with a degree could be assumed to have good English. Up until the early 1980s, Hong Kong had an elitist education system, with just over two per cent of the 17-20 age group going to university. Places at the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University - then the only universities - were so few that only students with excellent A-level results were admitted. The system was a pressure cooker and denied many qualified young people a chance to receive a higher education.

However, the system's highly competitive selection process at various levels ensured most graduates had good language skills.

Of these graduates, many became English teachers, regardless of what they studied at university. While some may have subsequently obtained formal qualifications in the teaching of English, others have not. It is likely that some of these graduate teachers may see the benchmark test as something of a humiliation, because they have good English and have been accomplished teachers for many years. They know that many of their younger colleagues have a weak command of English, although it is difficult for them to say so publicly. It is to be hoped they will support the benchmark test as a measure of recognition of their own ability and to encourage their weaker counterparts to reach the required standards.

The authorities might have erred in failing to consider the 'face' factor when introducing the benchmarking exercise. But all teachers should embrace it, both in the interests of maintaining their own professional image and to spare their own children the misfortune of being taught English badly.