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Proficiency Examinations – who needs them?

“I’m so frustrated!” These were the words of a friend of mine the other day, and international students on an F-1 visa studying at this university. Although he is a junior in electrical engineering and doing well in his engineering courses, he has again failed the English Department’s proficiency examination in composition. And he is not the only one. I know several international students can pass differential calculus with no-problem, but cannot seem to get out of freshman English, you must be able to write a 500-word essay in fifty minutes with no more than two “major” errors and five “minor” errors. While most native speakers of English manage to do this after two or three semesters of freshman English, non-native speakers have much more difficult time. The reason for this is obvious. Non-native speakers needs to spend some of their fifty minutes looking up new vocabulary words, carefully going over grammar constructions, and looking everywhere for a missing third-person S. While international students may have some more original ideas than native speakers, they may fail for superficial grammatical reasons. This seems very unfair to me. It seems clear that international students should be considered special cases, and therefore the composition proficiency requirements as now stated should not apply.

The case of international students at an American university is indeed special. First, most international students are using English as their second language. When it comes to writing a composition, international students using a second language require more time than native speakers. International students must spend part of their precious fifty minutes looking up words, checking over grammar constructions, and rephrasing tricky idioms. Furthermore, the composition proficiency exam is biased against international students. As you know, it counts grammar errors, which often have nothing to do with meaning. A good example of this is the complement after verbs. Often international students have very good ideas and concentrate on expressing them. Then they fail the test because they use an “ing” participle instead of an infinitive. For most American speakers of English, the complements after verbs are automatic; they do not have to think about them at all. Even if native speakers do not have very good ideas, they can still pass the test because they do not make any grammar errors. Therefore, it seems to me that international students should not be judged so severely on grammar errors, but should be judged more on the quality of their ideas.

My opponents might argue that international students need the level of English proficiency indicated by the exam to get through their other courses. They fear that international students will fail their math, science, history, psychology courses if they cannot write compositions. This is just not true. First, 75% of international students are majoring in math and science. In these classes, professors do problems on the board or demonstrations in the laboratory. Virtually no English composition skills are necessary. For further proof, I can give several more examples, like my friend above, who are proving every day that they can do very well (A’s and B’s) in their math and science courses without having passed the composition test. It seems clear that international students do not need to write English as well as my opponents think they do. But what about history and psychology courses, courses that normally require a certain amount of writing skills? Here, too, I can easily show that the proficiency level demanded on the test is not necessary. On the sophomore level, most introductory courses in history courses in history and psychology are mass lecture courses in which multiple choice tests, not essay tests, are given. As long as international students can read the textbooks and tape record the lectures, they can most likely pass these courses with no more writhing than a circle around the correct letter. The level of proficiency that the composition test requires is simply not necessary for most international students to pass courses in an American university.

Perhaps one may argue that the proficiency requirements are not necessary for American students, either. However, here I must point out several things. First, part of the point of writing composition is to express oneself well in language. Since English is the first language for most Americans, they will surely need to have this skill in their native language. And because most native speakers rarely study composition thoroughly in high school, they really need a thorough study of it at the college level. (Of course, if they have studied it in high school, they can generally pass the test with no problem.) On the other hand, many international students have studied composition in their own language quite thoroughly in high school. If they passed high school, they can already express themselves well in their first language. So, further practice in composition is not necessary. Furthermore, in terms of future use, Americans students might need to write well in English for their careers. But most international students will not need English for their careers when they go back home; they will use their own language. Since they have studied composition in high school, they are most likely adequately prepared in composition skills.

It seems clear, then, that the case of international students at American universities is special. They are using a second language, and this fact should be taken into consideration when the English Department reads the final proficiency tests. Further, since the level of proficiency required on the test is not necessary for most students to pass their courses, I would propose that the standard used to judge international student papers be relaxed or done away with. After all, if students can show that they can pass their other courses, why should the university block their way with superficial but often insurmountable barriers?

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