Are Teachers Teaching to the Test? A Case Study of the College English Test (CET) in China

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Abstract

The College English Test (CET) in China is a high-stakes standardized test to assess college students' English ability. One frequent claim against this test is that teachers may teach to the test, which could narrow the curriculum and turn regular English classes into CET coaching. This study aims to find out whether teachers are truly teaching to the test and the potential reasons involved. In order to gain deeper and more focused insight into the influence of the CET on classroom teaching, only its writing section was examined.

Based on data collected from some students and teachers at a University in Beijing, China, it was found that the overall influence of the CET writing was not as substantial as what has been claimed. Due to different stakeholders' perceptions of the CET, the influence on teachers was weak and indirect compared to a stronger and more direct influence on students. Also, teachers did not teach to the test due to the lower priority of writing among the four language skills. The relatively low requirement of the CET writing and its restrictive testing format also prevented the teachers from teaching to the test. Finally, the teachers' lack of professional training and some logistic factors outweighed the influence of the CET writing. It is pointed out that teacher factor may outweigh the influence of the CET, and thus rigorous teacher training should be provided to improve the efficiency of classroom teaching.

Keywords: teaching to the test, College English Test (CET), China

Introduction

In 1980s, a national college English curriculum was established in China, which divided college English teaching into six bands. Band 1 to Band 4 is required, while Band 4 to Band 6 is optional. Each band corresponds to one semester; therefore, students are expected to reach Band 4 at the end of their second year in college. In order to motivate fulfilment of the national curriculum and evaluate college students' English ability, the College English Test (CET) was launched in 1987, including Band 4 (CET-4) and Band 6 (CET-6). Almost all the tertiary institutions in China require their students to take the CET-4, and those who have passed the CET-4 can choose to take the CET- 6. Traditionally the CET-4 consists of five sections: Listening (Dialogue and Short passage), Reading (Intensive reading and Fast reading), Vocabulary and structure, Cloze, and Writing. Except for the writing section, the test mainly uses multiple choice items. The CET has been generally stable despite some minor changes and adjustments. However, since 2006 the weight of the Listening section has been raised from 20% to 35%; the weight of the Reading section has being reduced from 40% to 35%; the Vocabulary and Structure section is removed; Cloze section still accounts for 10%; Writing section accounts for 15% as before; and the remaining 5% is Chinese to English Translation. In collaboration with the British Cultural Council, the CET Committee conducted a large-scale project to examine the validity and reliability of the test. They reached the conclusion that the CET can accurately measure college students' English ability and the reliability index is over .85 (Yang & Weir, 1998).

In the past decade, the CET has become the most influential English test in China and also the world's largest language test administrated nationwide (Jin & Yang, 2006). For example, over 11,000,000 test takers took the test in 2004 (Ministry of Education, 2005). The CET is now a highstakes test with massive educational and social impacts in China (Cheng, 2008; Yang, 2003). According to a national survey by Yu (2005), 81.7% of the Chinese universities regarded passing the CET-4 or getting certain grades on the CET-4 as the precondition for earning a bachelor's degree. Many employers also list the CET certificate or score report as one of their primary job requirements. The impact of the CET has thus become a hot issue not only in academia but also in the whole Chinese society. …