NOTE: The article below is mirrored from the JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG website.
PDF SHIKEN: JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG Newsletter Vol. 9 No. 2. Oct. 2005. (p. 21 - 22) PDF

An Interview with Michael Todd Fouts

by Tim Newfields

Photo of Michael Todd Fouts, c. 2000 Michael Fouts has been chief editor in the test production division at the Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP), Inc. since 2003. He has worked in the editorial section of that organization since 1999. Prior to that he was a test-item writer and taught for six years at a high school in Tokyo. This interview was conducted by email during the summer of 2005.

Q: How did the Eiken test first come about?

A: The Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP) is an incorporated nonprofit foundation, established in 1963 as part of a Ministry of Education initiative to expand social education in Japan. For 42 years, STEP has produced the Jitsuyo Eigo Ginou Kentei Shiken (Certification Test in Practical English Proficiency), commonly known as Eiken. The tests have a dual purpose: to serve as authorized proficiency benchmarks and to help popularize and encourage the study of practical English. Eiken is administered to 2.5 million examinees each year in Japan and 46 countries. More than 70 million have taken the test since its inception, making it one of the most widely administered tests in the world.

Q: How has the Eiken test changed since its inception?

A: The first tests in 1963 were administered in three separate bands: Grade 1 (university level), Grade 2 (high school), and Grade 3 (junior high). As the test gained prominence, additional bands were introduced and the number of test sites expanded. As of 2005, Eiken is being administered three times each year in seven bands: Grade 1, Pre-1, 2, Pre-2, 3, 4, and 5. The test is offered at 400 public and nearly 20,000 private sites in Japan and worldwide. Test content is revised on a regular basis to incorporate the latest research to meet the needs of educators and examinees.

A unique aspect of Eiken is that we administer the test on a pass/fail basis in two stages. The first stage assesses reading, listening, and (for the higher bands) writing. The second stage, required for all who pass the first stage, is a speaking test in the form of a personal interview. Also of note is that Eiken is an "open" test, meaning that examinees can keep their test booklets; all materials become public on test day and are not reused. A unique set of items for all seven grades must be developed for each administration, no small challenge for the 200+ writers and editors who contribute to the test.

Q: What sort of research activities does the STEP organization sponsor?

A: STEP provides research subsidies for elementary, junior, or senior high school teachers involved in English education or research. Graduate-level students whose major is related to English education or testing will also be considered for grants. Group research projects are also considered. There are three categories of subsidies:

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Each year 15 to 20 subsidies are awarded for up to 300,000 yen per research project.

Q: What have been the most common criticisms of the STEP examinations? How is STEP responding to those criticisms?

A: The criticism I hear occasionally is this myth that our test items are written by "old Japanese professors" and use archaic or unusually difficult vocabulary. Of course this couldn't be further from the truth. Every Eiken item goes through a lengthy process of writing, editing, and validation, and each step requires the consensus of a team of native English speakers of various ages and backgrounds. This includes our in-house editors and the Editorial Advisory Committees that meet regularly to review and critique proposed items. The committees are made up of teachers and writers with extensive experience and a thorough knowledge of the needs of English learners in Japan. Each item must be fair and valid from a testing standpoint and also an example of authentic, practical English. Because examinees keep their test booklets, and the materials are used in classrooms around the country, we have to ensure that the content is worth reading and studying, and hopefully even enjoyable. Plus there are thousands of Eiken "fans" out there who monitor us very closely (we enjoy their message boards).

Q: What sort of future projects will the STEP organization be involved in?

A: In 2004, STEP formed a working partnership with Cambridge ESOL, the leading testing body in Europe. Together we launched STEP BULATS, an innovative English test for businesses. This is a jointly branded version of BULATS, a Cambridge ESOL product that has become popular in Europe for its use of performance assessment. The Japanese market is beginning to take notice, and we look forward to seeing where this partnership will lead.

Another exciting development is the growing recognition of Eiken overseas, especially in the United States, as a credential for international admissions. For Japanese students, studying abroad in North America has traditionally required a TOEFL® score, but during the past two years a number of schools have begun recognizing Eiken certifications. This benefits Japanese students because our test is less expensive and more widely available in Japan than other leading tests. Foreign institutions are attracted by our direct speaking component, which shows that an applicant has demonstrated the ability to speak interactively. At present, Eiken is accepted for admissions at 140 schools in America, Canada, and Australia. The majority are community colleges, which can be ideal for Japanese students in terms of academic programs and cost. We hope to help raise awareness here in Japan of the community college system.

On a related note, STEP recently became a NAFSA Global Partner. NAFSA is the Association of International Educators, a leading association in the field of international education and exchange. We exhibited at the NAFSA national conferences in recent years. At the next conference we'll present research from a project conducted at a community college in Hawaii regarding Eiken-TOEFL® correlation.

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