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Go Back to the List June 13, 2020
Without English testing, study abroad cannot resume

Never has a refund been so unwelcome. On 26 May, for the fifth consecutive month, the Chinese National Education Examinations Authority and the British Council announced the cancellation of IELTS tests scheduled for June. Prospective international students frequent the IELTS website to snatch bookings only to be advised of yet another cancellation.

IELTS is not alone. Between February and May, international English proficiency tests such as TOEFL, GRE, PTE and GMAT were all suspended in mainland China in the ongoing battle against the spread of COVID-19. Without an English proficiency assessment, Chinese students intending to study abroad are unable to apply for programmes or visas, so testing is a critical element in the resumption of international student flows.

Could July be the magic month for international English testing to resume? We will find out later this month, but the signs are promising. Let’s consider a few things.

Domestic exams in China will resume

In the coming July, some key nationwide examinations will be resumed, with the Gaokao, the National College Entrance Examination, taking precedence. On 7 and 8 July, a staggering 10,710,000 high school graduates will get to sit the Gaokao after it was postponed by one month.

Known as the highest stakes exam in China, the Gaokao is nerve-racking for students, families, schools and the broader communities, even in the best of years.

The fact that it is now possible to schedule the world’s largest mass examination in the first country to be affected by COVID-19 marks a significant global milestone in the recovery process and it could teach us a lot about how to manage health risks during such mass events.

It is a matter of priority-setting by China that no other mass testing, domestic or international, will be given serious consideration before the Gaokao wraps up.

Other mass tests have already been scheduled to recommence after the Gaokao. The delayed nationwide College English Tests will take place on 11 July. Most provinces and cities in China have committed to conducting the Senior High School Entrance Examination, or Zhongkao, in mid or late July. The numbers of junior secondary school-leavers sitting the Zhongkao exam are astronomical, with 1,210,000 in Guangdong province alone this year.

Chinese university campuses in lockdown mode

One factor that will limit the resumption of English-language testing is that Chinese universities are only gradually resuming on-campus operations, which is a problem since most English tests in China are held on university campuses.

Unlike those in most other countries, Chinese university campuses resemble gated and well-facilitated residential communities, which can easily close themselves off in lockdown mode to contain the pandemic. This means students are physically isolated from the rest of the world during their period of study. Campus lockdowns proved highly effective in mitigating the SARS outbreak.

It remains to be seen how universities that are in lockdown mode will be able to open up their campuses to outside test-takers and examiners. Options may include using designated buildings that can be isolated from the rest of the campus or hiring external venues.

The treacherous test tours abroad

For those who urgently need an English testing outcome to complete their overseas study application, taking tests abroad has become a risky but viable option.

In recent years, some Chinese students have chosen to take IELTS tests in Southeast Asian countries in the expectation of more favourable scoring practices, especially for the spoken English component.

Specialised tours for overseas testing run by intermediary agencies operate between major Chinese cities and popular destinations like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

This was the only alternative available to students early this year, but fluctuations in the spread of COVID-19 and sudden changes in travel restrictions and quarantine rules, combined with significant additional costs, have rendered it a very uncertain journey.

Moving tests online

The two major international testing services, ETS TOEFL and IELTS, are closely managed by the Ministry of Education’s National Education Examinations Authority, including testing schedules, locations and registration processes. It has so far not allowed testing to be delivered online, marking China as a rare exception in the global shift to online testing.

In March, ETS TOEFL launched the iBT Special Home Edition Test, which is the same as the computer-based test taken in a test centre but is instead monitored by a human proctor online using ProctorU. It has been available to students everywhere that TOEFL operates, except for mainland China and Iran.

In mid-May, ETS TOEFL launched the ITP Plus for China solution, which uses its paper-based test in 19 locations, plus a short online video speaking interview that is not assessed but is provided to educational institutions along with the written test scores.

The IELTS Indicator online test also follows the same timing, structure, format and content as the standard tests, with a video-based speaking test. However, it too is not available in China and so far has not been recognised by many education providers.

Two other international tests that are not regulated by the National Education Examinations Authority, and therefore are able to operate with more independence, have fared better.

Pearson’s PTE was able to resume testing in April, but test places remain very limited.

The Duolingo English Test (DET) meanwhile has been the only online English test available in mainland China and is quickly becoming recognised by an increasing number of education providers.

However, despite its convenience, the DET, which takes under one hour, has been criticised as an insufficient measurement of academic English proficiency for entrance to universities and has limited recognition for visa applications.

What next?

It is likely that the National Education Examinations Authority will allow ETS TOEFL and IELTS to resume mass testing in July across mainland China, but it will take time to clear the enormous backlog, which may prove too late for students to apply for Northern Hemisphere universities’ autumn intake.

The experience of language testing again highlights just how closed China is to international online education. The Ministry of Education has shown some flexibility in promising to recognise online study in foreign universities by students who are currently prevented from travelling. It appears that in the case of language testing, the ministry is yet to show such flexibility in embracing the shift online.

Jing Qi is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Sciences, and Christopher Ziguras is professor of global studies at RMIT University, Australia.

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Written by Jing Qi and Christopher Ziguras,
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