December 21st, 2009 | Published in China - Language
There are few things more humbling than looking at a Chinese college English exam.
Thursday night I spent two hours with some students, helping them prepare for the CET-6 English exam, which they took on Saturday. The CET-6 is a test that (apparently) almost all college students here take to measure their proficiency in English.
The test is extremely advanced for a second language test and yet contains quite a lot of grammatical errors and yet is U.S./Euro-centric and is the kind of thing that would make anyone who espoused progressive education in the United States scream bloody murder. The exam tests English reading, writing and listening by using fill-in-the-blank excercises/multiple choice and standard reading comprehension tests like you’d find on the SAT or GRE.
The thing is, though, that the test is almost unimaginably difficult for any non-native speaker. To pass, the students have to get something like 60 percent of the answers correct; but most of them don’t know I would say probably 30 percent of the vocabulary (I read somewhere that a reading passage is technically “illegible” to a reader if he/she doesn’t know 20 percent of the words).
An example of a test question (from memory):
One of the fill-in-the-blank excercises is a long passage about Germany’s response to the success of the U.S. economy in the 90’s. Random words are blanked out and the students answer by multiple-choice. One of the early sentences says something like
“Germany’s response came about after seeing the U.S. economy _______ in the 90’s.”
A.) Soar B.) Amplify C.) Hover D.) Extend
I think, maybe, without a dictionary, some of my more advanced students might know the meaning of “Soar” and “Extend”. Amplify and hover I think they wouldn’t know. Maybe they would have seen them before. But, nonetheless, they are expected to know these words, and to somehow understand why “soar” is preferable to “expand” in this context. Although, without living in a Western culture or having some idea of what happened in the U.S. economy in the 90’s, I don’t know why they would be expected to know the answer at all.
The reading level is, I think, somewhere around the reading level on the pre-SAT you take in junior high-school. So around the level where native speakers are at the age of 16. Except the subject matter is all about Western culture. So they’re being tested on the use of the language in the context of Western culture, when most of the students have met less than a handful of foreigners. Most of them have not traveled far from home. I don’t think any of them have left the country. It’s not like they have English-language newspapers in the library, either. Considering all that, they know an amazing amount about the West. But they don’t know things like what the U.S. economy did in the 90’s, and they certainly don’t know the word “amplify”.
The only analogue I can imagine would be if you took a 14-year-old in the U.S. and expected him to be able to score a 1200 on the GRE. Even if the kid had studied every day since he was six years old, only the occasionally lucky or brilliant student would pass. Most of my students won’t pass the CET-6. That would be incredible. Of about 200-some students who I know, three of them have passed it already. And those three, I think, worked incredibly hard. And they also, I suspect, got incredibly lucky on the day they took the test.
That is what most of these students will be relying on Saturday when they take the test–luck. The tests are timed and there is not enough time even for a native speaker (read: me) to comfortably read the material and answer the questions with total confidence. I am sure that if everyone in the U.S. had to take the test, a good portion of the population would fail. I can’t really guess at the number, but I bet it would be in the teens at least. So my students will basically go into the test room, read frantically, guess on most of the answers, and if they are lucky (stats say that someone always passes by guessing) a few of them will pass.
The rest will go on thinking that they are no good at English, even though they are. And who knows how not passing the CET-6 will affect their chances at getting a job (some say that they won’t be able to get a teaching job without passing it).
So Thurday night, after two hours of trying to explain to the students things like the difference between “soar” and “extend”, and why we typically use “soar” and “crash” when we talk about the economy in English, I threw up my hands and told them that the test was unfair, that it was criminally difficult for them and that it also included a bunch of grammatical errors, typos, unclear questions/answers and some multiple-choice questions with no single logically correct answer. I told them that I knew that they had all worked incredibly hard, and that whatever happened on Saturday, they should feel good about how hard they had worked and how much they had learned.
And I walked home thinking: sometimes you can be frustrated at the students’ limitations, and then sometimes you can be frustrated at your own.