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Testing a Nation

The Social and Educational Impact of the College English Test in China


Mark Garner and Dayong Huang

Many countries have national policies in relation to English language teaching that are monitored through standardized tests, and students’ performance in these tests may have a significant impact on their career prospects. When such high stakes become attached to a language test, it begins to play a far greater role than originally intended.
A preeminent example is the College English Test (CET), taken biannually by upwards of ten million students in China, which makes it the world’s largest national English test. Its impact is evident in many areas of Chinese society. Specified grades on the CET are requirements for graduation from universities, many job applications and even some residence permits. Consolidated CET results are widely used for rating teachers for promotion and for competitively grading institutions, hence influencing strategic planning by universities, government departments and companies, particularly those engaged in publishing or bookselling. The CET has, furthermore, given rise to a highly organized cheating ‘industry’, which is the subject of frequent governmental disclaimers and warnings.
This book reports on an extensive study of the impact of the CET in China, both on the lives of students and teachers and on educational and governmental institutions. The authors also draw theoretical and practical implications from their study for educational planners in other countries.


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Why study the impact of tests? Testing, as a means of assessing what students have learned, has been an integral part of education policy and practice for centuries (e.g. Baker & Quellmalz 1980, Brown 1992, Ravitch 2002, Resnick 1982, Spolsky 1995). For a long time it was assumed that it was a straightforward matter for those who taught a subject to create an appropriate test, and that the results accurately and fairly ref lected the degree and quality of learning. With the development of the study of education as an academic discipline, however, has come the awareness that the crucial importance of testing both for evaluating pedagogical ef fectiveness and for the progression of students through the system and beyond, into their careers, means that tests need to be systematically investigated in their own right. In the field of language testing – the topic of this book – tests have a long history, but until relatively recently they were generally assumed to be unproblematic and were consequently subjected to little scholarly scrutiny (Spolsky 1995). The early studies of testing in general, and language testing in particular, focused mainly on the design of tests in order to ensure that they were valid, reliable and fair. In recent years, however, researchers’ attention has increasingly turned to the educational, social, cultural and political con- texts in which the tests are set, and to their impact on individual test-takers and on wider society. All tests, except the most limited and localized ones, do more than measure a...

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