San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

English in Public Schools: Let’s Give the Frog Some Wings

(Part three in a three-part series on the teaching of English in the country’s public schools.)


YOU may remember Marjorie from my last column. Her English teacher had given her class a list of the key words from all the chapters they had studied throughout the year – his attempt to get his students to pass the ninth-grade Ministry of Public Education (MEP) exam, even if they were unable to understand it.


But let’s backtrack a bit here. At the conclusion of the sixth grade, the ninth grade, and the 11th (final) grade, Costa Rican students must take standardized ministry exams to pass to the next level or ciclo (cycle). Cycles I and II are elementary education. Cycle III is grades seven, eight and nine, and cycle IV is grades 10 and 11.


English is included in the ninth-grade and 11th-grade exams. The 11th grade or bachillerato exam is especially high stakes. Not passing it means that the student will be forced to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, enrolling in any institution of higher learning.


Given that students will only pass a course if they pass the ministry exam, the majority of teachers are going to concentrate on the exam material, and do so with a certain degree of panic. Moreover, not only does the outcome determine whether students pass, it is also a reflection of the teacher’s ability to teach, at least in the eyes of parents and administrators.


HOORAY! you may say. It’s good to make teachers accountable for what they teach. That’s what we should do.


The problem is that this only makes them accountable for what is on the test, and thus generally produces teaching equal to the quality of the test itself.


Now, a really good test is a very rare and expensive commodity. I know. I have engaged in much quixotic battling with administrators over poor standardized testing, and I have been involved in excellent standardized testing through the International Baccalaureate program. A good language exam consists of a listening, an oral, a reading and a written response. This does not mean filling in little circles.


The MEP English exam consists of small passages, usually from newspapers or magazines, which students read and then choose the best multiple-choice answer. It does not test listening, speaking or writing. It does not really test reading. It simply tests something we’ll call “getting the gist of it and making an educated guess.” In other words, after all the fanfare and vast amounts of money that have been poured into this program, this is what students are learning – to get the gist (well, maybe) and make an educated guess. Nada más.


WHY did MEP sabotage itself this way? you may ask.

It’s a bureaucracy; it just didn’t know any better. One department writes the curriculum; another writes the test. The test writing department opts for the low-cost and traditional, that is, little circles.


Returning to Marjorie, then, her besieged teacher gave his students a list of vocabulary that was designed to help his students make an educated guess about which little circle to fill in. He’s just trying to survive. Can we really blame him? It didn’t have to be this way. Given the innovative nature of the new English curriculum, probably what the ministry could have done was drop the testing temporarily and run an initial pilot program using experienced, well-trained teachers and expert administrators.


Once it had proved successful, it could have been gradually expanded as teachers became trained in the methodology. At a certain point, the program would have been ready to go nationwide. Once it had been well established, a decent, if not perfect, testing process could have been incorporated into the ministry exams.


If only they had… but then, if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his bum every time he hopped.


SO, can anything be done now to save all this time, effort and money from the bureaucratic garbage can? The good news is that yes, it can. The bad news is that it would cause a heap of trouble, at least for a while.


But let’s pretend we can give the frog some wings. What if we modified the test? What if we added two relatively inexpensive elements: a listening component consisting of short dialogues recorded on a cassette tape, about which students would have to write short answers afterwards; and a writing component consisting of a choice of paragraph or essay topics? Granted, neither of these tests the most important skill of all, speaking, but oral exams may be too expensive to consider.


Another solution is to employ spotchecking. That is, the ministry would choose a certain number of classes every year to which they would give truly rigorous exams in all elements of communication.


Administrators and teachers would never know who would be chosen and, therefore, all teachers would strive to have their students ready for the big one. Not fair? I don’t know. Is it fair to offer kids English, then teach them so little?


THE initial effect would be chaos. The unprepared teachers would simply be unable to handle the task, and perhaps the test as credit would have to be suspended temporarily. In the long run, however, might it not force the universities to prepare their student teachers in oral and written skills? Faced with the reality that their students, upon graduating, would probably get fired from any teaching job they held, wouldn’t the universities compete to be the ones that prepared their students well in oral and written skills?


Given that the MEP curriculum methods outlined are the ones that really work in language classes, wouldn’t teachers be motivated to use them?


There are solutions to this problem, more than those I’ve suggested here. Hey, is anyone out there listening? E-mail comments to Kate Galante at

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