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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 3 The design and conduct of the study


Introduction The study of a social phenomenon as complex as the impact of a very large- scale and high-stakes test, such as the CET, requires a wide range of disparate data, and hence a range of data-collection methods. This chapter presents an outline summary of the research approach and methods employed. The approach was qualitative and used various methods of data-gath- ering. Qualitative data were needed because the aim was to obtain as rich as possible a picture of the social and educational impacts of the CET by exploring in depth the experiences, behaviour, and attitudes of representa- tive individuals from key stakeholder groups. A multi-method approach was followed because, as Mingers (2001:243–244) points out, the real world is stratified, dif ferentiated and multidimensional, and triangulation by means of dif ferent approaches is necessary to ‘deal ef fectively with the richness of the real world’. The primary data were gathered in a series of interviews with a range of CET key stakeholders. The information from the interviews was supplemented by data from several other sources: i. E-mail interviews; ii. Observations of EFL classrooms and CET test sites; iii. A survey of media reports relating to the CET; iv. Examination of of ficial pronouncements about the CET, includ- ing its administration and proposed reforms; v. Investigation of a range of printed documents, such as CET pre- paratory materials, teaching plans, and job advertisements; vi. Examination of on-line blogs relating to experiences of the test. 50 Chapter 3 A total...

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