What Are the UT Credit By Exams?
Are you a high school student in Texas? Does your school not offer Chinese? You can still get credit for two years of Chinese through the University of Texas Credit by Exams (UT Credit by Exams). If you have been studying Chinese independently, or if you learned Chinese in elementary or middle school, UT Credit by Exams could be a good way to get Chinese credit on your transcript. It may fulfill your school’s language requirement. It may also be a compelling part of your college applications. If your high school does offer Chinese, you may be able to use your test score to skip a level or two.
First things must come first, however. Check with your school’s guidance office about taking the UT Credit by Exams test in Chinese. They might be very excited about a student taking this test, or they can be bizarrely intransigent about helping you. I’ve seen both. In any case, you will need their help in scheduling the exams and getting your results.
There is More to Learning Than an Exam
For this blog post, I am mostly going to talk about the Chinese 1 exam, for the sake of brevity. Lots of what I have to say about the exam still applies to the Chinese 2 exam, however. The purpose of the exam is to show that a student has achieved the equivalent of passing a high school Chinese 1 class. I teach Mandarin Chinese so that students can use Mandarin Chinese to communicate with Chinese-speaking people. I don’t teach Chinese so that students can pass fancy-sounding exams. Learning a language is a lifelong journey and proficiency exams are the equivalent of getting your passport renewed. It is just proof that you are who you say you are (e.g., a proficient Chinese speaker).
The Speaking Section
The UT Credit by Exams test for Chinese 1 is three hours long and it tests ability in speaking, reading, writing and listening. The study guide for the exam starts with speaking, so we will start there too. The prompts are in English, but the students must respond in Chinese. Some of the prompts in the study guide are great examples of why standardized tests can be lame: “describe a house or a particular room in your house and why you like it.” I have yet to meet a teenager with a keen eye for decor. With speaking evaluations, test-takers are sort of at the mercy of the topic. Not having anything to say gets graded the same as not saying anything. So here is my top tip: make ％¥@！up. No one grading your exam will know if you are telling the truth. If you have to pretend to like soccer for the sake of an exam, graders will not show up at your house to make sure you own a pair of cleats.
Look at the Rubric
The rubric for the speaking portion of the exam is telling. To answer the prompt “satisfactorily,” the test taker must briefly address the prompt, and use three or more words or phrases (emphasis theirs). They may be “understood with great effort” by a native speaker. So… they are really not looking for all that much. Which is realistic. Say through a Chinese 1 class, a student has had 180 hours of solid input in the language (you know I am all about that input). That means they should be able to recognize about 700-900 words MAXIMUM. The number of words that the learner can use in an communicative event will be a much smaller subset of those. So yeah, stringing together a few phrases about hobbies, places in the US, or a room in your house is all that is reasonable to expect. It is a a good thing that the test designers seem to recognize that.
The Listening Section
Like the speaking section, the listening section also uses English. Test takers must listen to the prompt and then answer multiple choice questions that are written in English. I assume that the section is designed this way so for validity, so that it does not accidentally become a test of reading comprehension as well. To prepare for this exam, students really do just need to do a lot of listening. Many classes, do not provide this opportunity. Instructors spend too much time explaining things like grammar in English, and too little time using Chinese to communicate with the students. If this sounds like a class you took, I recommend Learning Chinese Through Stories to make up for it.
If I had to guess, I would say that the simulated conversations part of the exam would probably be the trickiest for most learners. Test takers have to choose the best response to a question or statement in Chinese. The samples given in the study guide show that the test designers expect an almost native-like understanding of how Chinese works in certain situations. For example, how 没关系 (it’s nothing/no problem) is not an appropriate response to thank you. Less than 200 hours of instruction in a Chinese 1 course is just not that much time. There is a big question mark for me about whether this is appropriate for the level.
The Reading Section
Like the listening section, the answers for the reading section are in English. The right preparation for this is of course doing lots of reading in Chinese. A good teacher for high school students will supply leveled reading for beginner students. If you don’t have access to these kinds of materials, read more about them here.
The Writing Section
The writing section, like the speaking section, gives prompts in English. Students will need to handwrite their responses, so knowing how to handwrite a large number of characters is an important part of test preparation. I am not sure if this is a good use of an exam, considering how little we actually write things down with a pencil and paper. I am not in charge of the exam however, so here we are. The best preparation for this section is what I call “swinging the heavy bat.” I am not a baseball fan, but I have heard that they practice swinging with a heavier bat than what they actually use during a game. So in the game, they are prepared to swing harder than they really need to. If you practice writing a several responses to the practice prompts (under timed conditions), when the test comes around, it will be a breeze. Make sure you write much more than you think that you need.
Again, Look at the Rubric
Like with the speaking section, the bar for getting “satisfactory” marks on the writing section is pretty low. Scorers only look for a few phrases strung together that briefly address the prompt. If a test taker writes several complete sentences that fully respond to the prompt, they will probably get full points!
A true test of Chinese proficiency would be to drop a learner in the middle of China (or Taiwan) and to see how they do. Since we can’t do that :), tests like the UT Credit by Exams is what we have. These exams are not really proficiency exams, either. The test is meant to award (or not award) high school credit for doing the equivalent work for a high school class. If you would like assistance in preparing for this exam, please get in touch.