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China Daily Website

Sitting exams becomes pet subject for students

Updated: 2013-11-23 01:48
By Jin Zhu ( China Daily)

Students from the Chinese mainland are known for their rich experience in sitting exams, and Zhao, 17, is no exception.

But what sets this student at the High School Attached to Capital Normal University in Beijing apart from millions of his peers is that he is a veteran of a United States exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test.

Zhao, who only gave his surname, is busy preparing to sit the test — a standardized US college admissions exam — for the fourth time, in December.

Like many Chinese students, he plans to take the SAT a number of times with the expectation of achieving higher scores.

He said he drew up a clear three-year study plan to apply for US universities as early as his first year at high school. "I hope I can study at a prestigious US university, such as the University of Georgia."

Zhao is among a large number of Chinese students who are aiming to study overseas. Passing the SAT is the first step.

The exam, held six times a year outside the US — in January, May, June, October, November and December — is not offered on the mainland and students often travel to Hong Kong or Singapore to take it.

Most of the top US universities require a candidate's SAT score, but there is no limit on the number of times the exam can be taken.

Educators and analysts say the enthusiasm to take the SAT stems mainly from increasing competition among Chinese applicants in recent years, but they fear such students will develop a lack of creativity.

For instance, critical reading in the SAT, which focuses more on independent thinking, puts Chinese students at an obvious disadvantage, said Mu Yanwen, academic director of DK International Education, an overseas study agency in Beijing.

He cites statistics from his research team showing that Chinese students scored 160 points fewer than US students in the reading section. The survey was conducted among more than 5,000 respondents between 2011 and 2013.

Zhao Qing, deputy manager for US and Canada projects in the Guangzhou branch office of Amber Education, a Hong Kong-based education counseling service, said the number of Chinese students applying for US universities at her office has increased by an average of 20 percent year-on-year.

"Most students, who had SAT scores of between 1,700 and 1,900 points, had not excelled in extracurricular activities, scholarships or awards," she said.

"Such applicants' credentials may give admissions officers at US universities the impression that Chinese students can achieve high scores in the SAT by repeatedly taking the exam, but that they are lacking in creativity, which many US colleges consider indispensable for academic studies," she said.

In the exam that Zhao took in Hong Kong in October, he scored 2,080 points out of 2,400, compared with 1,850 when he took the exam for the first time in January.

"I became more familiar with the test — both with the type of questions and the atmosphere in the examination room," he said.

"The first time I took the exam was also my first visit to Hong Kong. I was totally attracted to the city and wasted lots of time by hanging out with my friends before the exam," he said.

During his three visits to Hong Kong to take the test —with each trip costing 5,000 yuan ($820) on average —Zhao took part in four-day group sessions for the SAT.

"I decided not to sit domestic college entrance exams so that I have freedom to manage my time to make better preparations to take the exam in Hong Kong," he said.

"My score has improved but is still lagging behind many others. I hope to increase my chances of success with another attempt," he said.

Mu Yanwen, the overseas study educator, estimates that about 90 percent of mainland candidates sitting the SAT take the exam at least two or three times.

"This trend is common in other Asian regions, such as Japan and South Korea, where students often focus on performances in standardized exams," he said.

A report published by DK International Education this month found that by the end of May the average score of mainland SAT candidates was 1,385 points in the past year, a year-on-year increase of 131 points.

Beijing students performed best, with an average score of 1,455 points, followed by those from Shanghai and Guangdong.

A report from the Institute of International Education in November showed the number of mainland students studying at universities and colleges in the US reached 235,597 in the 2012-13 academic year, a 21.4 percent year-on-year increase.

Lu Wenjing, an English-language teacher in an international class at the High School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University, said almost all her students will take the SAT two or three times before they graduate.

She said the class is designed to cater to the growing demand to study abroad, and teaching content is in line with exams for overseas education.

But Mu said the SAT will be reformed in 2015, which is expected to pose a greater challenge to exam-oriented students. The test will place greater emphasis on creative and critical thinking.

"Mainland students will have to learn how to think and present their ideas more logically to meet the requirements for studying in the US," he said.

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