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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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The use of any test is in essence an attachment of stakes to the test results. In the case of the CET, insofar as it is used for its originally intended pur- poses, the stakes are proportionate to its function of enhancing the teach- ing and learning of English. Our research has shown, however, that the test is increasingly used for purposes that were not intended by the MoE and the CET Committee. The competition for various forms of capital among, for example, graduates seeking work and/or residency; universities seeking funding; and teachers seeking promotion or awards, has made it necessary for those groups that have the power to allocate rewards – the universities, government bureaucracies, and employers – to seek fair and universally comparable criteria for selection. The CET, as a national test taken at one level or another by all students, is an obvious candidate for such a measure, and its use can be easily defended on the grounds of prag- matism and convenience. Under closer scrutiny, however, such unintended uses can be seen to be rather less ethically defensible or even, in the long run, socially desirable. The stakes of the CET have become progressively higher as a result of these unintended uses, with multifaceted and chain impacts on students. The impacts can be seen in their approaches to the learning of English and other subjects, their ethical conduct, and perceptions of the fairness of both the test itself and its uses. The relation between test uses and test...

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