Korea: TOEFL tours to Thailand

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu May 17 13:04:32 UTC 2007

May 17, 2007
South Koreans Jostle to Take an English Test

SEOUL, South Korea, May 16 Thailand has its attractions for foreign
visitors: its famed temples, seaside resorts, tom yum soup. But what drew
Oh Sun-yee to Bangkok recently for a three-day stay was something
considerably less recreational. Like an increasing number of South
Koreans, Ms. Oh went to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or
Toefl. It would have been easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a
needle than to sit for the Toefl in Korea, said Ms. Oh, 31, who spent two
days cramming for the test in her Bangkok hotel room, took it on the third
day and then caught the six-hour red-eye flight back to Seoul.

Forget the North Korean nuclear crisis. What has many South Koreans in an
uproar these days is the Toefl crisis. The Educational Testing Service,
which administers the test, reduced the number of slots for test-takers.
So with demand for the test far outstripping the available slots, and with
scalpers demanding exorbitant prices, desperate South Koreans have been
hunting for possible test sites from Japan to Southeast Asia, and even
Australia. Travel agencies have begun offering Toefl tours that include
test preparation courses, a guaranteed test slot and sometimes even a bit
of tourism on the side. One test preparation school estimates that about
500 Koreans a month all told travel to other countries to take the test.

South Koreans make up one of the largest groups of foreign students in the
United States about 93,000 students in 2006, according to the United
States immigration authorities. American colleges and graduate schools
typically require foreign students to submit Toefl scores with their
applications. So it is hardly surprising that the demand for opportunities
to take the test is high. But in recent years, Toefl scores have also
become a necessity for many South Koreans with no intention of leaving the
country. Many people, from teenagers applying to selective secondary
schools to adults applying for jobs even jobs with no obvious need for
fluency in English must submit Toefl scores. Dozens of universities
require a Toefl score for graduation.  Government offices and
quasi-governmental agencies city councils, jails, the Korea Racing
Association ask applicants for their scores.

I think English ability is a basic criterion now, said Kim Jae-yoon, the
human resources director of Chongga Kimchi, a major producer of the
traditional Korean dish. The company recently hired an accountant and a
manager after factoring in their Toefl results. The number of people
taking the test in South Korea jumped to about 130,000 in 2006, from
50,311 in 2001, according to the Educational Testing Service, based in
Princeton, N.J. The crisis erupted last year, when the company changed
testing methods. In September, partly in an effort to tighten security and
discourage cheating, the testing service switched to a new Internet-based
test that would be given simultaneously throughout the region, about four
times a month, and then discarded. Previously, the test was given as many
as 50 times a month, as local demand warranted, from a bank of questions.

But the abrupt reduction in the number of times the test would be offered
meant that, from September to December 2006, they were prepared to process
only about 20,000 tests in South Korea. The testing service had initially
expected that it would be able to allocate 64,000 test slots for South
Korea in all of 2007. This was so far below demand that, in April, a
senior vice president of the testing services international division, Paul
Ramsey, told reporters in Seoul that an additional 70,000 slots would be
created for South Korea in 2007. But it is unclear whether even that will
be enough, with some private cram schools anticipating a demand of 200,000
this year. As an indication of the fierce competition for the available
slots, the testing services Web site recorded 32 million hits in one day
from South Korea when it opened online registration for the July test;
available seats were gobbled up within moments, according to the testing

It is this disparity between supply and demand that sends so many South
Koreans abroad. Ms. Oh, who wants to study marketing at an American
graduate school, arranged her Toefl trip to Bangkok on her own. But travel
agencies offer two- to three-day Toefl tours to other Asian locations,
including Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. The packages typically
include registration, crash courses and Korean breakfasts for those
unwilling to risk indigestion on the important day.

You don't know when you'll ever be able to sign up for the test in Korea,
and if you go overseas, you can also enjoy some travel! says an
advertisement for an agency called English-Up. Agencies say that these
tours, which typically cost about $850 to $1,000, airfare included, are
almost fully booked for the next few months. For those who do not want to
leave the country, trying to register for Toefl can be like playing the
lottery. Two days after the July test was announced, the testing service
said registration was open in all locations except South Korea. But later,
without notice, it reopened registration for the July tests four times in
South Korea as more seats became available. It also offered a
one-time-only paper-based test for 8,000 people.

Some South Koreans registered by clicking away frantically at their
computers for days on end. Others hired people to register for them. Kim
Hye-sook, 29, said she paid a student $100 to secure a seat. Since I am
working, I cant click on the computer all day, said Ms. Kim, who wants to
study public health in the United States and will take the paper-based
test in Seoul on June 3. The shortage of seats has attracted scalpers who
register for the test and then resell the slots for far more than the $170
registration fee. Stories of would-be test-takers cheated out of their
money are common.

In April, Mr. Ramsey announced several other measures to help alleviate
the problems, including the opening of a testing service office and the
creation of a Korean-language page on its Web site. The testing service
also said it would provide at least 72 hours notice before the test
registration, so South Koreans would not have to sit in front of their
monitors day after day. The Toefl crisis has prompted calls for South
Korea to establish its own national English proficiency test. We need a
test run by this country, said Sohn Jung-a, 39, the mother of a
ninth-grade girl who registered for the June 3 test in hopes of entering a
selective secondary school. I don't know why my daughter has to take the
Toefl, Ms. Sohn said. She's probably not mature enough to understand the
questions made for older students going to the United States. Still, if
her daughter does not score well in June, Ms. Sohn said, she plans to send
her to the Philippines for a second try.



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