How English testing is failing Chinese students by driving numbers, not proficiency

  • Philip Yeung says as the market for English assessments, such as IELTS, grows in China, test designers should ensure that exam questions encourage true language learning
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 6:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 6:37am

If any “English as a second language” test has an oversized footprint in China, it is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). With Donald Trump threatening to shut Chinese students out of US universities and colleges, it will grow even bigger, for the simple reason that it is the one test that is widely accepted in Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand for higher education purposes – the spillover countries for America’s rejects.

How big is IELTS? Last year, it had over 3 million test takers, with Chinese students accounting for over half a million. If any country typifies an exam-driven country, it is China. It is made for IELTS.

With only 27 per cent of Chinese candidates scoring the benchmark 6.5 or above for admission to overseas universities, the retest market is massive. Often, the same candidate attempts the test multiple times. At 2,020 yuan (HK$2,288) per test, it is a gold mine for the testing authority, in this case the British Council.

But as IELTS has continued to grow, there have been rumblings of complaint from educators that the test is anti-educational. First, some academics have cast doubt on its value as a predictor of tertiary English-language proficiency. Eight British universities have recently had to denounce rumours that they are rejecting Chinese students, but some Chinese suspect there is a kernel of truth there; some universities consider their Chinese students linguistically unprepared for academic studies.

Students in China, for their part, accuse IELTS of making the exam questions so tough that they are forced to resort to playing guessing games. Instructors often give up teaching comprehension and instead teach exam skills that help students narrow down the answers to multiple choice questions.

Typically, Chinese candidates score poorly on speaking and writing. This is no doubt because English has been taught as a school subject, not as a communication skill. Many patronise the thousands of test preparation centres that have mushroomed across China.

While the conventional wisdom is that students should not repeat the test within a two-month period, the truth is that many centres justify their existence by the frequency of their customers’ attempts. This is financially good news for IELTS, but bad news for genuine linguistic enhancement. IELTS now offers computer-based tests that are available eight times a month, versus four times for paper-based tests. That’s more dollars for its coffers.

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Repeated attempts at test-taking, sadly, have one predictable consequence. The test becomes an all-consuming end in itself. Students have no interest in learning anything unrelated to IELTS. Chinese students study hard, yet the results are dismal. Many are stuck in a lowly band of 4.5. One IELTS examiner told me that he once dealt with 20 students from a training agency; they gave the exact same answer in an oral exam, making the exact same mistake.

In the writing paper, too, Chinese candidates are trained to use so-called IELTS language, such as “as we all know” and other fillers, plus rephrasing the topic as the opening sentence. The sameness of the writing guarantees them a low score. Some Chinese have a solution to that. They fly to examination centres outside China, in Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand, to take the test, where the sameness of their answers won’t be an issue and where they are compared favourably with their Asian peers. A new cottage industry has sprung up to meet this demand.

This is a sad state of affairs. Exam designers and takers alike have forgotten the true purpose of education. Learning has become a cat-and-mouse game, in which the art of writing is lost and so is the joy of reading and writing. Chinese learners of English at various levels are said to reach a staggering 600 million.

Yet, modern China, for all its new-found power and army of overseas students, cannot produce a single great writer in English. By contrast, early in the last century, when China was at its poorest, and few learned English, it boasted three great English writers: Lin Yutang, Qian Zhongshu and Ku Hungming. Today, in the nasty age of Trump, China doesn’t have a silver-tongued English spokesperson to take its message to the West.

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The effects of IELTS are evident: there is a crisis in language education in China. We are producing a whole generation of IELTS test-takers who don’t read, can’t write and can barely speak English.

It’s time for IELTS to stop treating Chinese students as cash cows. With the money it rakes in, the British Council has a moral duty to design exam questions that drive genuine language learning, including alphabetical literacy, word-formation skills, rhetorical devices, non-fiction writing techniques, knowledge of the bipolar nature of English, as well features of authentic English.

In short, it should promote the art of writing. Be done with the dull summarising of diagrams or charts and make writing personally meaningful. As for oral exams, I recommend group discussions over one-on-one interviews to counteract the ingrained Chinese tendency to resist class discussions.

IELTS is already a household name in China. Why not make it a byword for education innovation as well? As a high-stakes test, it has the power to transform classroom activities. Surely, we don’t want a whole generation of befuddled Chinese learners who are too shy to speak, and can’t write, English.

Philip Yeung is a part-time writing coach/English lecturer and ghostwriter to university presidents and civic leaders. [email protected]