English proficiency and college admissions in China

I was interested and somewhat pleased to see that recently, there has been some discussion of lowering or eliminating the weight attached to English scores in college entrance exams in China. The Wall Street Journal China Real Time Report blog has a nice discussion of what has been happening: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2013/11/07/learning-english-may-be-losing-its-luster-in-china/

Much of the commentary I have seen adapts either a practical or nationalistic interpretation. The practical terms revolve around the idea, probably correct, that many people will in fact have no need for English after they finish college. The majority of college graduates are in fact unlikely to end up in that involve contact with English-speaking foreigners, or reading English language documents. Accordingly, it doesn’t make sense to make English language ability a key criterion for entrance into college. I tend to agree with this. It doesn’t make any more sense to consider the English language ability of applicants to college in China than it does to consider the Chinese language ability of applicants to college in the United States. This is especially compelling because I think the sort of preparation that students do in order to maximize their score on the English section of the gaokao necessarily leaves them with a practical mastery of English that would be useful in routine interaction. Even worse, for the vast majority of students who in fact don’t go on to jobs after graduation that require use of English, whatever they learned for the gaokao will have been wasted.

It seems to me that it would make much more sense to eliminate the English portion of the gaokao completely, and offer intensive instruction in English only to students in majors where it will benefit them. While it may be that speaking a foreign language without an accent requires learning it before puberty, for most people, it won’t really matter if they speak English with an accent or not. Why not save intensive English instruction for top universities whose graduates are most likely to use English, or for students in second or third tier universities in majors that may lead to jobs where they are going to use English.

One way or the other, it seems like it would make sense to do some fine tuning and take an evidence based approach to deciding who would benefit the most from English language instruction, as opposed to the current one size fits all approach that pressures all students to learn enough English to do well on the gaokao, regardless of whether or not they will ever use English after they finish college.

The commentary I have seen that interprets the reduced or eliminated emphasis on English in college admissions as some kind of symbol of rising nationalism seems silly. There may or may not be increasing nationalism in China, but I am not sure that a decision to downgrade the importance of English in college admissions has anything to do with it. As I noted above, there are all sorts of practical reasons to reduce the emphasis on English. Refocusing education on a native language that people will actually use and de-emphasizing a foreign language that many will never use isn’t nationalism, it is common sense.

I think, however, that there is a third reason to think the reduced emphasis on English is a good idea: equity. I don’t have any evidence at hand to back this up, but I would hazard a guess that among the various things that one could imagining testing students on, English language ability might very well be the most heavily influenced by parental social class. I would suspect that among all of the subjects that parents could spend money on for after-school lessons or tutoring, English language performance is probably the most responsive. Again, I don’t have any evidence to support this, but I suspect that progress in English, like progress in any foreign language, is fastest when students have the sorts of skilled teachers and intensive instruction that are available to families with money. And of course, children who have upper middle class parents who already speak and read English, or who have the money to send their children abroad during the summer, will be especially advantaged.

Leaving the issues of after school instruction and parental English language ability aside, I would guess that urban/rural and school differentials in the quality of English language instruction are much more extreme than differentials in the quality of instruction in math, Chinese, science, or other subjects. Schools may not only differ in whether they offer any English at all, but in what kind of teachers they can hire. Rural elementary schools may not even offer English language instruction, while elite primary schools in major Chinese cities may very well have native speakers with teaching credentials teaching students from an early grade. The depiction of elite middle and high schools in Beijing in this Washington Post article is especially suggestive of the sorts of growing gaps in the quality of instruction across schools: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-china-parents-bribe-to-get-students-into-top-schools-despite-campaign-against-corruption/2013/10/07/fa8d9d32-2a61-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html Conversely, we were recently in the countryside and happened to visit an elementary school in a village, and the principal told us that there was no English instruction there.

Thus for both practical and equity considerations, I am supportive of the idea of reduced emphasis on English language ability in college admissions. In an ideal world, college admissions would be based on the aspects of student performance that are least sensitive to parental social class, and most reflective of the student’s own ability and potential. I don’t know enough about the relevant literature to know what subjects those are. But again, I would hazard a guess that differences across schools in the quality of instruction in math, science, and a variety of other subjects are much less extreme than differences in the quality of English language instruction. And I would also suspect that after school tutoring, summer camps, and other expensive activities have much more effect on English language scores than they do on other kinds of scores.

I realize of course that there are all sorts of reasons for criticizing the gaokao, and considering alternatives, but in the meantime, it seems that anything that might reduce the influence of parental socioeconomic status on performance on the gaokao is to be welcomed. I have some ideas about the gaokao, but they are related to some other ideas I have about college admissions in general, in China and the West, and I will leave that for another blog post.