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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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Chapter 1 The background to the CET


The organization of education in China In terms of administration, China’s education system is highly centralized and hierarchical: each level of government (e.g. county, city, provincial, national), has its corresponding education authority. All schools and higher education institutions, both state-run and private, come, either directly or indirectly, under the administration and oversight of the Ministry of Education (MoE). In other words, all the educational activities in China are, at least in principle, guided and regulated by the MoE. As a conse- quence of this administrative organization, education is highly politicized. All educational institutions are required to abide by the policies of central government. No activities that are not in accordance with these policies are allowed in any school or university. To strengthen the political control of the education system, the government, through the education authorities, usually appoints the chief administrators of the state-run schools or univer- sities, for example, the head teacher of a school or a university principal. In addition, a Party (the Communist Party of China) Secretary is appointed for each education institution and its departments. Students progress through the education system, from primary school to higher education, by a process of selection and classification, as shown in Figure 1. Certain students are selected to progress to a higher grade and others drop out. After selection, students are classified: that is, they are put into dif ferent schools or higher education institutions (ordinary schools and universities or key schools and universities). Key schools are those which have high...

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