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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 5 The impact of the CET on learning and teaching


As we commented in the Introduction, a high-stakes test often inf luences learning and teaching in ways that go beyond its primary function of pro- viding assessment and feedback. This is especially likely in relation to the tested subject through the washback ef fect: the test may begin to deter- mine, rather than simply inform, the ways in which content and approach of pedagogy and the students’ study orientation. The impact can, however, extend also to other subjects in the curriculum. Our findings in the study show that the CET exercises both kinds of inf luence in Higher Education in China, and the discussion of the findings in this chapter is organized under these two headings. The first section explores the washback impact of the CET on the teaching and learning of English in universities; the second, the investigates the impact of the CET on the learning of other discipline subjects. The washback ef fects Educationists in China have for some time taken an interest in washback and the CET. Some scholars interpret these ef fects in a positive light (e.g. Gu 2003, Yang 1999, 2000a, 2000b, Zhang 2003), whereas others take a more negative view (e.g. Jing 1999, Liu 2002, 2003, Niu 2001). The relatively few empirical studies have examined either the ef fects of the CET in its entirety (e.g. Chen 2007, Gu 2005, Huang 2002, Zhou 2002) or those of its individual components (e.g. Jin 2000, Yao 2002). To date, however, there is still a lack of...

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