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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 7 How fair is the CET? Perceptions of stakeholders


Introduction Any impact study of a national high-stakes test like the CET needs to investigate the extent to which the stakeholders, and in particular the test takers, perceive it as fair. Test fairness is a ‘critical central component’ of any test (Kunnan 2000:10). Part of the impact of a test depends not only on its validity, but on how fair test takers believe it to be (Hawkey 2006:116). These beliefs have a considerable inf luence on their behaviour in preparing for and taking the test (Kirkland 1971:308). Thus, the exploration of the perceptions of test fairness has important implication for testing practice, including language testing. Test fairness has been investigated theoretically and empirically, both in education in general and in language testing in particular (e.g. Broadfoot 1996, Davies 2010, Elder 1997, Gipps 1999, Hamp-Lyons 2000a, McNamara &Ryan 2011, Kunnan 2000, Shohamy 1997, Stobart 2005, Xi 2010). Perceptions by various stakeholders of test fairness have, however, been much less studied. In a very early study, Tesser & Leidy (1968) surveyed high school students’ views of tests. When asked whether tests were fair to students of all racial groups, the majority agreed, but there was a large dissenting minority among low-income students. Baird’s (1987) study of the perceived fairness of a Graduate Record Examination and a Scholastic Aptitude Test also found that the majority of the students regarded the tests as fair. Perhaps predictably, there was a direct correlation between scores on the tests and fairness ratings: those who scored...

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