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Cancellation of test results sparks discussion over China's exam culture

The board of the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) recently informed via email 357 Chinese students of its decision to cancel their results of the Upper Level Secondary School Admission Test organized in Beijing and Shanghai on September 19, 2015, due to suspicion over the reliability of the high test scores.

The cancellation of over 300 Chinese students' test results by an American test board has put China's language training institutions under the spotlight.

The board of the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), a standardized entry exam for private high schools in the United States and Canada, recently informed via email 357 Chinese students of its decision to cancel their results of the Upper Level Secondary School Admission Test organized in Beijing and Shanghai on September 19, 2015, due to suspicion over the reliability of the high test scores.

The SSAT board said in the email that there are "reasonable grounds" to question the validity of the unreasonably high test scores and that an investigation into the case will be conducted, but it did not give further details.

After September 19, 2015, several English training institutions in China bragged about their ability of guessing right the test questions, said sources, with a Beijing Times report saying that all examinees trained by a Shenzhen-based English training institution get perfect scores of 2,400 points on the September test that assesses verbal, quantitative and reading skills, a better performance than most American students who find it hard to score 2,200 points on the test.

To follow up the trending news, reporters interviewed several training institutions specializing on overseas study in Zhongguancun, a technology hub in Beijing, finding that the SSAT board's decision has not made a negative impact on their business.

"The cancellation of Chinese students' SSAT results has not caused any loss to our business. Today alone, we received dozens of visitors who are interested in our SSAT training course," said a teacher working for an English training institution based in Zhongguancun.

Booming industry

Surrounded by many top universities including Peking University, Tsinghua University and Renmin University of China, Zhongguancun, known as China's Silicon Valley, is home to about 400 training institutions for overseas study, according to statistics.

Training institutions for overseas study or language training schools in China began to offer training course related to the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), an equivalent to China's college entrance examination, and the SSAT after 2008, with their customers mainly including businessmen and people interested in studying at foreign universities.

The growing number of younger Chinese students studying abroad has impelled many language training institutions in China to shift focus from providing conventional language training courses to offering SSAT-related training courses that are attached with a one-stop service package including consultation on overseas study and writing of application materials.

"You can see, during the weekend, all our classrooms are filled with students. Even some teachers do not go home until 10 o'clock in the evening due to the heavy work," said a teacher surnamed Wang from a language training institution named Saida.

Saida has a 500-square-meter office which is divided into six small classrooms and four big classrooms. The language training institution categorizes its SSAT training course into two levels with one designed for students with poorer English skills and the other for drop-outs from Chinese high schools who have enough time to learn for overseas study.

According to Saida's curriculum schedule, every student should complete a six-hour SSAT course plus a Test for English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) course.

"Many of our students already received our SSAT training course when they were third-grade students in junior high schools, with the youngest students only aged 12 years old," said Wang.

High training fees

"Most students who attend our SSAT training course are from affluent families," said Wang of Saida, which charges a student 750 yuan per hour for a one-to-one class and 450 yuan for a conventional class which consists of up to 50 students.

Beijing-based Shi Dai Education Training School, a small firm focusing on training for overseas study, provides an eight-month SSAT training course priced at 60,000 yuan. The one-to-one course is valued at as much as 100,000 yuan, said the school.

Shi Xin, a New York-based educational consultant, said that Chinese people taking the SSAT are basically students applying for private American high schools, which are classified as boarding schools and ordinary schools. "Generally speaking, boarding schools rank higher than ordinary schools in reputation due to stricter admission requirements. Compared with ordinary schools which only need TOEFL Junior scores or TOEFL scores, boarding schools require both TOEFL and SSAT scores," said Shi.

An industry insider said on condition of anonymity that a large part of the Chinese students who took the SSAT in September could pass the TOEFL test, with some aiming for top American high schools. But he also admitted that some parents are willing to pay "an additional fee" of 20,000 to 50,000 yuan to help their children cheat at the SSAT in case of a failure, with illicit methods including hiring ghostwriters and getting test questions before the exam by misusing the difference in the exam time.

'Unwritten rule'

When asked about the reasons behind the cancellation, a teacher surnamed Huang working for Meibo language training agency, said, "It is certain that some persons reported the practice of guessing test questions by language training schools (to the SSAT board)." The Meibo teacher called the practice an "unwritten rule" in the industry.

Plenty of language training institutions in China collect SSAT test questions, which are often reused, in various ways, such as paying examinees to memorize the questions during the test, said Huang.

"For Chinese students, if they work hard in memorizing the collected test questions and do some mock tests, they will score around 2,000 points on the SSAT," said Huang, adding that 80 percent of students who receive the SSAT training course could get such a high score.

Huang attributed the cancellation of Chinese students' SSAT results to cultural difference between China and the US, affirming that the practice of guessing test questions is legitimate. "Buying test questions and paying people to take the exam are cheating," stressed the teacher.

It is reported that the SSAT board will reform its assessing system after January 2016, when the last SSAT in its current form will be organized, a move to filter out the students who get high scores helped by what it called inappropriate practices.

Is guessing test questions illegal?

Many language training institutions even hype up their ability to guess the questions in the ads in a bid to attract more students to attend their courses.

New Channel, China's leading language training institution, often delves into the question patterns of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), an indicator of true-to-life ability to communicate in English for education, immigration and professional accreditation, and is good at analyzing the examiner's ideas in drawing up the test questions, said a consultant from the training institution.

The consultant disagrees with the view that guessing test questions is a conduct of cheating, saying it is a part of China's long-held exam culture which sees reviewing and guessing test questions as important in passing the exam.

New Channel has found several ways to help its students to get higher scores on the IELTS in a short period, said the consultant.

For many Chinese students who have already had some English basic knowledge, passing the IELTS with high scores also needs some skills that should be gained from the tutors, said the consultant. "The tutors' ability in guessing right the test questions is one of such skills."

Shi expressed concerns over those Chinese students who get high scores in some entry examinations but have poor ability in engaging in practical activities and communication.

Shi said that guessing test questions is suspected of violating laws as the conduct is not prevailing in the US. It also puts the integrity of China's students and language training institutions under scrutiny.

(This article is translated and edited by Ding Yi.)

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