SCMP Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Valid testing

After the opposition put up by the Professional Teachers' Union to the benchmark testing of language teachers, it was expected that only a minority would opt to sit a test to prove they were proficient in the language they instruct. When the deadline expired yesterday, only two per cent of serving English teachers had volunteered to sit the first assessment test, although the numbers may rise as mailed applications are tallied.
That is a pity, because it means an unknown number will now have to spend time taking a refresher course they do not need. Since the test is voluntary, it is safe to assume that most of those who are bold enough to take it expect to pass without difficulty. They can then resume teaching with another plus-mark on their curriculum vitae, without having to assume the added burden of extra study.
In calling for a boycott of the benchmark test, the union is trying to counter the view that teachers are to blame for the decline in English skills of our young people. The union has a point. There are certainly many contributory factors to the decline. Children nowadays spend less time on books as television and computer games compete for their attention.
In Hong Kong, it is a myth that English standards were higher in the good old days. Most local Chinese have never had a good command of English. It is more accurate to say that a generation ago some people spoke good English, but the numbers were small, whereas more people now speak poor English and good English speakers remain scarce. The current language scene has to be seen in the context of a massive expansion of secondary, and then tertiary, education over the past two decades, during which time quality was sometimes sacrificed for quantity.
Teachers might have found the benchmarking scheme more palatable had officials shown a better appreciation of their feelings. Nevertheless, a teachers' union dedicated to the advancement of education could have opted to attack the Government's failings and then rally around the scheme on professional grounds. There is nothing insulting in asking schoolteachers to prove their competence in mid-career. Professionals from other disciplines who work outside the cloistered atmosphere of the schoolroom are subjected to such testing on a daily basis.
Few jobs are more important than moulding young minds. It is not only reasonable, but necessary to check that those who equip today's children to run tomorrow's Hong Kong are well qualified to do so.