Assessment and curriculum reform in China: EFL education at the tertiary level

Year: 2008

Author: Chen, Qiuxian, Klenowski, Val

Type of paper: Refereed paper

The current world sees a changing climate in educational policy and practice (Broadfoot, 1996; Murphy, 2007). This is attributed to the combined influence of many aspects. The first relates to the increasing acknowledgement of the theoretical developments in cognition, notably constructivist and sociocultural perspectives (Rogoff, 1999). These perspectives have provided dynamic insights into educational philosophy and understanding about the nature and process of learning and assessment (Broadfoot, 2004). The second is the overall dissatisfaction with educational attainment (Klenowski, 2006) and a desire to raise the quality of education to gain an edge in an increasingly competitive global context (Murphy, 2007).

In these educational reforms, assessment assumes a critical position (Murphy, 2007). The reasons follow. Firstly, the educational system is now 'politically charged and value laden' (Leach, McCormick, Moon, & Murphy, 1999 p. i) in a competitive global context. It demands 'efficiency and quality' out of its expenditure (Mok, 2005). Secondly, the realisation that "real change will not take place in schooling until significant change happens to assessment" (Torrance, 1996 p. i) places increasing interest on assessment for policy-makers. Thirdly, assessment itself, as informed by the above mentioned theoretical developments, has undergone a 'conceptual shift' (Dwyer, 1998) from behaviourist to constructivist paradigm (Gipps, 1994). Notably, more emphasis has been given to formative assessment, which highlights the learning process, learner engagement, and particularly, learning improvement rather than evaluation of products (Harlen, 2006). This role of formative assessment in 'supporting and enhancing learning' (Black & Wiliam, 1998) is appealing to both policy-makers and other stakeholders.

Reforms initiated to achieve better educational outcomes for a sustainable future via more developed learning and assessment theories have included the 2007 College English Reform Program (CERP) in China's context. The CERP is situated in the discipline of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for non-English major students in the Chinese higher education context. Initiatives to achieve better education outcomes for a sustainable future via more developed learning and assessment theories and technology are clearly articulated in its guideline document, the College English Curriculum Requirements (CECR) (CMoE, 2004; 2007). The stipulated College English assessment framework has taken two major moves. Firstly, the original external examination system, the College English Test (CET) testing system is reformed in a substantial way; and secondly, formative assessment elements are advocated to incorporate into the summative assessment framework. Concern remains as to whether this reform of foreign origin could fit with the local context. The question is what issues need to be considered to avoid any potential pitfalls in practices? To what extent the implementation practices will be aligned with the policy rhetoric? And what the long term effect will be?

To find clues to these questions, this paper sets out to examine the social and cultural context of the CERP. This will be achieved by examining the causes that resulted in the unsuccessful attempts in the previous College English curriculum reforms. Special regards will be given to the roles that assessment performed in the reforms and its impact on College English teaching and learning practices. That will shed some light on the barriers and possibility of the CERP in the local reality. Further, this paper will present the changes to the College English learning context in the past decade. Highlights are given to the quality demand and the new role that testing and assessment has assumed in the assessment culture of China. Thirdly, this paper will report the progress and challenges as informed by the research literature, and call for attention to the problems that looms. As such, the paper seeks to introduce the College Education and the CET testing system and the current College English reform to a new readership while also providing a source of analysis directed towards the impact of global educational reform outside the Western contexts.

As many documents are involved to indicate the policy shift, the methodology of document analysis is used.

Key words: testing and assessment, EFL, higher education