Do Chinese Students Get Higher IELTS Scores if They Take the Test Outside China?
By Christopher Redmond
This is a very common question from IELTS teachers. Further details are rarely provided, but the implication seems to be that examiners in China are stricter when it comes to giving scores. While it is true that some candidates may indeed have gotten a higher score abroad, there can be many reasons for this.
There could, for instance, be a long period of time between the candidate’s test in China and their test in another country. This would allow for higher levels of proficiency to be reached if the candidate spends enough time practicing English between tests. It could also be the case that they performed better because they were more relaxed having taken the test before. Multiple studies, for example, have found that anxiety can significantly impact linguistic performance (see, e.g., Gardner and MacIntyre, 1993, and a recent study by Zheng and Cheng, 2018). Extensive practice, however, typically alleviates anxiety (Liu, 2006) and leads to better performance.
The belief that Chinese candidates consistently get higher scores abroad is more likely an example of “survivorship bias”, a logical fallacy that occurs when only certain people (the “survivors”) are included in a sample. Consider the following case: the three strongest students in an Advanced English class all come from the same country. One may assume, based on this small sample, that the country they come from has a very high standard of English. While this could be true, it may also be possible that those students who made it to the Advanced English class are just the ones who survived a rigorous selection process. A much wider sample would need to be analyzed before making any inferences about the overall level of English in that country.
As a teacher in Korea, I once showed a video of an English-speaking contest in China where each participant was very fluent in English. My Korean students, upon seeing this, commented that Chinese people speak very good English. Of course, participants in a national English-speaking contest are hardly a representative sample of English ability in a country, and China is no different. As it happens, a wider study of this topic concluded that overall English proficiency in China is low (see EF – EPI, 2018).
In a similar way, candidates who report getting higher scores in another country may simply be the ones who decided to report this news. People whose scores stayed the same may have chosen not to report this news, probably because it is not as exciting or noteworthy as saying that their score in that country was higher. We would need to look at the results of a large sample of candidates who took IELTS in two different countries before being able to make any inference about whether they were consistently receiving higher scores in one of those two countries. Even then, the reasons behind this would not be certain.
Furthermore, all IELTS examiners are monitored according to the same system of professional support, and the scoring system is standardized to ensure high inter-rater reliability among examiners across the world. It does not matter whether they are marking tests in China, Thailand, or anywhere else; they will still be looking for the same features when they are deciding which score to award. Examiners undergo intensive training to ensure their scoring is accurate, while internal research has verified that examiners agree strongly when choosing which scores to award (see Isaacs et al., 2015).
It is understandable that candidates are anxious to receive a high score in their IELTS test. However, there is no evidence that simply taking the test in a different country to their own will affect their score in any measurable way. In fact, this belief often works the other way too, with many candidates believing that they will get a higher score if they stay in their home country (see Myths and Rumors). The fact is, location and score show no clear correlation, and teachers would be advised to focus on improving their students’ English skills rather than offering advice that is, at best, unsupported.