For the last few years I have been working with an awarding body which, among other things, offers examinations in English for speakers of other languages. In Greece, English language exams are big business: more than a hundred thousand students sit for such exams every year and fourteen different examination bodies have so far had their qualifications recognised by the Greek state.
EFL teachers and language schools in Greece therefore have, one would think, a lot of choice. One would imagine that the teachers and language school owners look at what each exam is about, how the various language skills and/or systems are tested, which exams are more compatible with the syllabus they are following, whether they are appropriate for the age of their students, and so on.
In actual fact, though, the format, structure, content and syllabus of each exam are immaterial! Most schools make their choice of exam to prepare their students for based on a solitary criterion: how easy it is for the students to pass, regardless of their actual level, regardless of the course they have, or have not, attended, regardless of whether they actually deserve to get the qualification that the exam leads to.
And because there are so many exams to choose from, and because the exam market has become a very competitive one, teachers and language school owners actually feel that they can unashamedly voice their demands. Many of them will not hesitate to call or email the academic director of the examination body (in our case, that person is unfortunately me) and say, in so many words: ‘Five of my students took your exam last month and only one passed! I demand that you reconsider your decision, revise the results and pass at least four out of the five. Otherwise, I will not only allow none of my students to sit for your exam again, I will also bring the matter to my language school owners’ association and you will never get any candidates from my area again.’
What I find really sad (not even shocking any longer, just sad) is that these people, who are supposedly educators, are not necessarily aware, on a conscious level, of what they are doing. When I tell them that we are not in the business of selling valueless certificates, they say ‘of course not; I didn’t say anything like that!’ When I tell them that we refuse to be blackmailed into cooking the results to make them more favourable (!) because that would turn our exams into a sick joke and because that would simply be unethical, they are shocked and surprised and start shouting at me ‘how dare you suggest that I am attempting to blackmail you?’
And yet, when I finally suggest to them that perhaps their students are not, after all, at the level they thought they were and perhaps they need more language development work before they attempt an exam at this level again, the standard answer is invariably that they themselves think their students deserve to pass and must pass; otherwise (i.e, if we insist on offering an exam that is valid and reliable and a certificate that actually means something) we should forget about getting any candidates ever again!
Yes, I am aware of the pressure on teachers and language schools to produce certificate holders; I am aware of the fact that teachers and schools are evaluated almost solely on the basis of exam success rates; I am aware of the fact that many language schools are striving to survive in an impossibly competitive post-capitalist environment. But it still saddens me that people who call themselves educators are so cynically demanding that awarding bodies certify that their students know what they evidently do not know simply because these students, or their parents, happen to be paying customers.