Thursday, 19 August 2010

Why small countries do well at FCE?

From the February 2010 EL Gazette

LOOKING at the latest scores for Cambridge Esol First Certificate English (FCE) exam results, there are some striking trends. One is the handful of small countries that seem to do exceptionally well.

The small former Soviet state of Belarus (population 9 million) has a 95 per cent pass rate in FCE, and 27.9 per cent of Belarusian FCE students get an A grade. Little central American nation Costa Rica has a 100 pass rate in FCE, while modest-sized EU ‘accession’ state Slovenia has an 89 per cent FCE pass rate, and a 22.5 A grade score. 88 per cent of Serbia’s FCE candidates pass, with about the same proportion of A grades as Slovenia. Sweden – with about the same population as Belarus - has a 93 per cent FCE pass rate, and a similarly high A grade score. Bahrain, the smallest Gulf State, has a 90 per cent FCE pass rate, much higher than any other Middle Eastern country.

What factors result in these very high scores? By comparison, the pass rate for FCE in the UK is an unimpressive 65 per cent, probably the result of the tendency of some language schools to put students through exams long before they’re ready. Russia has a 79 per cent pass rate for FCE, but a much lower proportion of grade A passes, only eight per cent. Sweden’s score can’t just be attributed to its language’s closeness to English – neither Germany nor Holland, with languages closely related to English, do particularly well at FCE.

We asked Cambridge Esol’s media relations officer Stuart Giblin if there was anything in the statistical set that could account for these scores. He got back to the Gazette to say that the samples on which the high scores for FCE were based for Serbia, Slovenia, Costa Rica, Bahrain, Belarus and Sweden were ‘statistically insignificant’ – in other words, so few people were taking FCE in these countries, that we can’t make any meaningful comparisons with bigger countries where the pass rates and A-grade rates are based on much bigger cohorts of candidates.

But the Gazette has done some digging of its own. We may be completely wrong, but we think we’ve identified factors in the small six – Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden Costa Rica, Belarus, Bahrain – that could account for their high scores, with possible lessons for those running exam classes elsewhere.

One clue to Slovenia and Serbia’s exam success is the origins of these countries, both are former Yugoslav republics. Socialist Yugoslavia had an impressive reputation for education, and some of the better elements of that system seem to have stuck. Vincent Smidowicz of Sidmouth International School, a consultant to City and Guilds, told the Gazette ‘Serbia does have excellent educational and cultural standards; earlier this month was my first visit and I was very impressed.’

Belarus’ high FCE score may be down to a local peculiarity, the Belarus Testing Initiative, devised by the British Council’s Belarus office back in 1997, with the support of the country’s education ministry. The Testing Initiative overhauled the country’s then prevailing antiquated system of oral exams for school leavers, followed by university entry exams written by the individual universities, taken several months later. These were replaced with exams deliberately aimed at integrating Belarus more closely into Western European higher education, with exam papers developed by a Thames Valley University consultant. Could this mean that international exams devised in the UK, such as FCE, have become more familiar to Belarusian candidates?

Swedes generally do very well at English, and it seems that some Swedish state schools – unlike the school systems of most other Northern European countries – put their pupils through FCE. Several UK universities that take a lot of Swedish students. In recognition of the generally high level of education in that country, some UK universities will take Swedes –often as relatively short-term exchange students - into their first year of a undergraduate course with just a Swedish gymnasium diploma plus an FCE.

And Bahrain? The numerous guides for expatriates on living and working in Bahrain emphasise the importance of the lucrative one-to-one exam tutoring market, with particular surges in demand as the exams season approaches, and in the re-takes season once the results are out. Bahrainis, it seems, will pay for personal training to get them through EFL exams.

According to International House Costa Rica’s executive director Marcela Devine, Costa Rica has a tiny sample of people taking FCE – only about 50 candidates a year, mostly young adults - in its main test centre in the capital, San Juan. Ms Devine told the Gazette that the country’s FCE success ‘is entirely due to good candidate preparation… we offer a mock exam several months before the exam and use the results for organising exam preparation courses.’ UK language schools please note!

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