China’s Test Prep Juggernaut

May 16, 2011 at 7:00 am

On a Sunday afternoon in March, Morgan Meng, a broad-shouldered, mustachioed high school senior from Jinan in eastern China, wanders through an exhibit hall in Beijing, browsing tables stacked with brochures showing leafy campuses and smiling, multi-ethnic faces. Elsewhere at the “Colleges that Change Lives” fair, hundreds of Chinese parents and students overflow conference rooms where admissions representatives from the likes of Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., are promising small classes, mild winters, and Asian cuisine. For hundreds of American institutions, from obscure colleges to prominent universities, Chinese students, who typically pay full international tuition, have become highly desirable.

Meng has been admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he plans to major in history. He’s one of tens of thousands of Chinese undergraduates expected to attend stateside schools next year. Prosperous Chinese families see an American education as a sign of status that can help their children find jobs once they return home. In conversation, Meng responds to questions about his readiness for studying in America by saying, “Let me think.” Then he waits for an interpreter to explain in Chinese. “I have the concern about English,” he says haltingly. “I may read the textbook smoothly. I can’t always catch up with the professor. Their speaking speed may be faster. There may be some”—he turns to the interpreter, who suggests the word “slang”—”that it is difficult to communicate with classmates.”

Still, the language barrier didn’t stop him from scoring 680 out of 800 in writing and 590 out of 800 in critical reading on the SAT, which is given in English, in addition to 770 on the math portion. Like thousands of other students in China, Meng learned to game the test, earning a score that belies how modest his language skills actually are. By taking an intensive two-month, six-days-a-week course offered by New Oriental Education & Technology Group—sponsor of the college fair—he raised his overall score on the SAT from 1670 to 2040 out of 2400, making him an attractive candidate for a whole new league of American colleges. His score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which measures proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening and is one of two tests international students may take to demonstrate their grasp of English, soared from 65 to 90 out of 120. Many universities, including Illinois, require a minimum TOEFL score of 79.  Read more.

D. Golden, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 5, 2011

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Entry filed under: NKITA.

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