High demand causes 'Toefl crisis' in South Korea
SEOUL: 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, she had gone abroad to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl.
"It would have been easier for a camel to pass through a eye of a needle than to sit for the Toefl in Korea," said 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 redeye back to Seoul.
Forget the North Korean nuclear crisis. What has many South Koreans in an uproar these days is the "Toefl crisis." With demand for the test far outstripping available slots, and scalpers demanding exorbitant prices, desperate South Koreans have been hunting for possible test sites from Japan to Southeast Asia, 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 travel to other countries to take the test.
With South Koreans making up one of the largest foreign student communities in the United States - about 93,000 students in 2006, according to the U.S. immigration authorities - it is hardly surprising that demand for the test would be high. American colleges and graduate schools typically require foreign students to submit Toefl scores with their applications.
But in recent years, Toefl scores have also become a necessity even for 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 Toefl for graduation. Governmental offices and quasi-governmental agencies - city councils, jails, the Korea Racing Association - ask applicants for 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 condiment. The company had recently hired an accountant and an operational manager after factoring in their Toefl results.
The number of people taking the test in South Korea jumped from 50,311 in 2001 to about 130,000 in 2006, according to Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, New Jersey-based company that administers the test.
The crisis erupted last year, when ETS changed testing methods. In September, partly in an effort to tighten security and discourage cheating, ETS 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 given meant that, from September to December 2006, only about 20,000 South Koreans could take the test. ETS 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, the senior vice president of ETS, Paul Ramsey, told reporters in Seoul that another 70,000 slots would be created for Korea in 2007.
But it is unclear whether even this 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 ETS 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."
It is this disparity between supply and demand that sends so many South Koreans abroad.
Oh, who wants to study marketing at an American graduate school, organized her Toefl trip to Bangkok on her own.
But travel agencies offer two- to three-day Toefl tours to other Asian countries and territories, 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 the advertisement for an agency called "English-Up."
Agencies say that these tours, which typically cost about $850 to $1,000, flight tickets 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, ETS said registration was open in all locations except South Korea. But later, without notice, it reopened registration for the July tests four times in Korea as more seats became available. It also offered a one-time-only paper-based test for 8,000.
With so little warning, 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, paid a student $100 to secure a seat.
"Since I am working, I can't click on the computer all day," said Kim, who wants to study public health in the United States and will take the paper-based test in Seoul on June 3.
Ahn Jung Hoon, 25, ran to the computer as soon as his Toefl preparation agency sent him a text message alerting him to new openings.
"Some teachers at my agency register for their students," said Ahn, who wants to study hotel management in the United States.
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.
During his visit in April, Ramsey announced several other measures to help alleviate the situation, including the opening of an ETS representative office and the creation of a Korean-language page on its Web site. ETS also said it would provide at least 72 hours notice of when registration would open, 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 next year.
"I don't know why my daughter has to take the Toefl," 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, Sohn plans to send her to the Philippines for a second try.