Saturday, September 15, 2007

Testing 1-2-3

I spent a beautiful Saturday indoors taking a full seven hour battery of standardized tests.

The Chinese Proficiency Test (or H.S.K., from 汉语水平考试) is the Chinese equivalent of the TOEFL in America or IELTS abroad-- it's a standardized test administered to tens of thousands of Chinese-language students every year. It offers proficiency certification that is valid for university entrance qualification, professional skills-set requirements, etc. To some people (read: Koreans) this test is a big deal.

So it's no small dumplings that the test administrators have decided to totally revamp the examination; the test(s) I took today are called the New H.S.K., which makes it sounds like an over-hyped knock-off brand of cola from south of the Mason Dixon in the 80's.

I-- and six of my classmates-- were given the chance to take the test free of charge (usually $50 USD) and free of registration hassle (usually hours' worth) in return for basically test-driving the new test... twice.

We took the advanced-level test in the morning, and the middle-level test in the afternoon. Each test was about 3 hours and change, and was markedly different from the old H.S.K. which I took last December.

I have to say, it was a big improvement. The test was neatly organized into four sections that covered all aspects of communications: listening, speaking, reading, writing. The old test only covered listening and reading (receptive abilities) and ignored speaking and writing (productive abilities), which encouraged the Korean study bugs to lock themselves in their dorm rooms with tapes and books and totally avoid actually talking to Chinese people.

They also cut out all the one-liner grammar questions, fill-in-the-blank segments, and dissect-a-sentence sections, and focused exclusively on reading comprehension, which was always the most challenging anyway.

The listening was pretty much the same, and the writing was just a simple composition assignment, but the speaking component was crazy: we were given 15 minutes to prepare a five minute oral presentation that addressed the specific prompt questions of two different scenerios: in one scenerio, we were calling a friend to arrange details for a weekend outing; in the second scenerio, we were factory workers lodging a complaint with a boss.

After the 15 minute prep time, everyone taking the test simultaneously begins speaking their presentation into a headset microphone hooked up to a tape machine controlled by the teacher. It shouldn't have been hard (I certainly know how to tell a friend we're going to the beach in Chinese) but the environment and recording method were so unnatural, so forced, that my classmates and I all found ourselves speaking at far below our normal abilitiy.

Despite the uncomfortable speaking exercise, I liked that the test was comprehensive across the four categories. But even more surprising than the new format was the new content: 100% practical-use oriented.

Chinese-- even modern Mandarin-- is a language full of quirky irregularities and obscure proverbs, and real mastery of the language requires an understanding of these delicacies. So the old H.S.K. loved to test students' knowledge of common innuendo, folk sayings, and four-word phrases. It also tested rhetoric and the appropriate use of Chinese measure words (which vary according to the noun being measured).

The new H.S.K. couldn't care less about 成语. The content was fully geared towards operating efficiently in modern Chinese society: the listening content included a customer-service hotline dialogue and a television ad for cell phones. The reading comprehension material included a standard business contract and a report on a recent summit on environmental protection. For our writing assignment, we wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper to share our views on recent local government policy (how democratic!).

There was no doubt that the advanced test was hard, and I'm entirely unsure if I passed or not (unlike the old test, the New H.S.K. has only three possible outcomes: "fail","pass", and "excellent"), but in any case I felt the difficultly level was appropriate, and furthermore, I think that if I really studied for such a test I could pass it in the near future without too much trouble. The mid-level test was easy and an excruciating waste of my time.

After a long day of testing, I gathered most of Chinese friends together and the dozen of us went out for dinner and had a great time. Now I'm home and ready for sleep and a Sunday of relaxation and (possibly) a hokey "win-a-job-as-a-Chinese-TV-program-host(ess)" competition.

Good night, dear friends, good night.


Chris said...

Interesting that it's gone practical. More than I can say for most standardized tests.

Any tips on studying for the new version?

赵晨威 said...


Listening: there are forty listening questions, the last 6-8 of which require you to listen to a passage and then write (in Chinese characters) the answers to listening comprehension questions. Be prepared to simply parrot back information from the tape; read the questions before if you have time, and jot notes as you listen to the recording.

Reading Comp: Skim like a motherfucker. Read the questions before you read the passages, and ignore the (copious and extraneous) details.

Spoken: I don't know what to tell you-- I did terribly on this part, mostly because I got freaked out by the droning of everyone else taking the test around me. I would practice being comfortable speaking to yourself while other people around you are talking.

Writing: Hey, either you can write characters or you can't. Before you take the test, brush up on the basic ones so you don't brain-fart when you need to write something simple.

Unknown said...

Wow. I killed myself on the traditional exam last Spring. Three tough hours in the exam, coupled with 10 hours on the bus in order to reach the provincial capital!

It was a beast, and was definitely an offering to readers and writers, with very little for people who actually spoke and listened well. This style sounds . . . almost pleasant by comparison. I may have to fly back to the Middle Kingdom and take it.