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Language Proficiency Testing for Chinese as a Foreign Language

An Argument-Based Approach for Validating the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK)

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Florian Meyer

How did the (old) Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) assess the Chinese proficiency of non-native speakers of Chinese? What inferences can be derived from HSK test taker scores, especially from Western test takers? How difficult is it to learn Chinese according to the HSK? Thirty years of research have been synthesized into an argument-based approach for validating the most widespread test for Chinese as a foreign language. In addition, the author has analyzed the scores of a sample of over 250 German test takers in order to investigate how many hours German natives needed on average to study for reaching a specific HSK level. This work also extensively discusses validation theory for psychological testing, and it demonstrates how to put an argument-based approach to validation into practice.
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6 The validity argument for the old HSK

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The validity argument for the old HSK comprises six steps, with each step including backing that tries to warrant the argumentative chain and counter-backing that aims to rebut the argumentative chain. The argument provides the framework that helps to structure and place all evidence that supports or refutes the HSK’s use, ending in a justified and traceable overall appraisal of the HSK’s use. This approach shows that validation is a process and simple conclusions such as “though the HSK’s validity can be adopted, but it has not been unambiguously proved” (Ziermann, 1996, p. 15) reflect a deep misunderstanding of what validity is. Validity is a question of degree (Messick, 1989b), and a test has a high or low degree of validity with regard to a specific purpose.

The HSK’s purpose and target language domain

The main purpose of the old HSK was to assess whether candidates possessed the Chinese language ability necessary to successfully study at a Mainland Chinese university. However, this use was later extended to almost all existing learner groups, for instance to Chinese ethnic minorities and Chinese learners overseas. Nevertheless, the HSK’s main purpose set the direction for describing the target language domain. This description provided useful and partially very detailed information and pointed to crucial issues. However, not all questions were answered, for example, whether test takers should be able to read handwritten Chinese. When the HSK’s target language domain was operationalized, a trade-off was made for objectivity and reliability...

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