Friday, June 15, 2007

Testing Times

One of my houseguests this week had entered for the LSAT (America's law school entry test), which he was to take on Tuesday.

Peking University - one of the oldest and most prestigious (they themselves would claim the most prestigious!) in China - was to host the exam; so we might expect a reasonably high standard of organizational efficiency, yes?

No. This is China. I've worked at Bei Da (as it is known locally), and it is just about as fucked up as every other university in China. It only achieves some semblance of international academic respectability because it has so much money and influence, and because it can cherry-pick all the best students from across China. Its administration and teaching are still mostly abysmal.

As my friend found out.

The address he'd been given for the test venue said only that it was part of the English Department. Well, there is no English Department as such; at least, not one that's easy to identify, because it is a sub-unit of the Humanities Department. The University's website is pretty piss-poor. There is a map on it, but it is tiny, and probably labelled (if at all - you can't really see) only in Chinese; you are supposed to be able to click on different parts of the campus to get a readable enlargement, but.... that function wasn't working when we tried. And the 'test centre', when he eventually found it, was not in fact part of the 'English Department' at all, but an unrelated building located in a completely different part of the very large campus. He at least had taken the precaution of making exploratory trips up there - on each of the two preceding days - in order to track the place down. Candidates who had not been so farsighted or so fortunate, candidates who had hoped that getting there an hour or so early on the day of the test would be sufficient, arrived vexed, breathless, and late.

It was a brutally humid day, but there was no air-conditioning. I imagine there must have been ceiling fans (every Chinese university building I've ever been in has ceiling fans), but for some reason they were not in use. Sitting the test became a physical challenge more than a mental one.

And guess what - there was no effective invigilation. None of the assistants in the test rooms appeared to speak any English (although at least a quarter of the test takers were non-Chinese). The 'chief invigilator' was never seen; he was merely a disembodied voice over a tannoy. Now, there probably is no way of cheating on an exam like the LSAT, but even so, you expect there to be a strictly disciplined test environment to ensure that no-one will even attempt to cheat. The rules for the test were very detailed, with a prescribed list of permitted items that could be taken into the test room, items that had to be carried in a see-through Ziplock bag of a certain size. My friend was rather exasperated (he's German, and lives up to his national stereotype of being very methodical and a little uptight) that - after he had spent long hours fretting over these regulations, and scouring the city to procure the right size of bag, the right size of water bottle, the right kind of pencils, etc. - to discover that these rules were not being enforced at all by the Chinese test centre staff. Some Chinese candidates were bringing in the kitchen sink in large, opaque carrier bags. Some brought in (banned) cans of soda. Some even had mobile phones or MP3 players with them. I don't think anyone attempted to bring in a dictionary - but it is unlikely anyone would have stopped them if they had.

Just another day in a Chinese exam room. (Did you think I was exaggerating when I complained of this the other day?)

The organizers of the LSAT really might want to consider taking over the administration of the test themselves in China, rather than franchising it out to a university (even a "leading" university such as Bei Da). I wouldn't trust any Chinese educational institution not to make a complete fiasco of it.

But...... to finish on a quainter note: the Chinese apparently refer to this test as 'LeSat' (Me: "Isn't that the vampire in those Anne Rice novels?"). And why shouldn't they? How are they to know that a convention has arisen of pronouncing the acronym 'El-Sat'? Heaven forbid that they should ever pay any attention to how native speakers pronounce things - the Chinglish way is always best!

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