Beijing elementary school kids are being pushed by their parents to study for English tests that may not only be inappropriate for their age but will only help them learn "dumb English".
At Beijing's Jingcheng Culture School, enrollment is booming with young students who are taking extracurricular English courses in the hope of earning certificates issued under the Public English Test System (PETS).
The problem is the so-called PETS certificates are actually geared toward adults who work with elementary English, such as taxi drivers and hotel doormen. PETS concentrates on topics involving married life and social values, which are quite difficult for teenagers to understand.
However, parents send their kids to preparatory study classes in record numbers. More than 2,000 elementary school students are studying for PETS exams this year, up from 1,300 last year, according to Jingcheng Culture School.
Parents are desperate to boost their children's educational resumes in hope for a PETS certificate, which will help them get into a better middle school, almost a prerequisite to get into university.
"Can my son achieve PETS level 3 by the time he finishes elementary school if he starts taking courses in grade one?" Asks an overeager mother in the Jingcheng School's consulting room that's filled with equally anxious parents.
Zhang Ke, the foreign language department director of Jingcheng School, says it's 'ridiculous' to push kids through the three levels of PETS. He says usually only outstanding senior high-school students can achieve PETS level two.
But parents feel their kids have no choice but to enter the English study classes as a PETS level one or two certificate is often required by key middle schools. Tens of thousands of primary school kids compete for far fewer desks in key schools.
The classes and the tests are also likely not helping the kids learn good English. "They (the kids) rely on some techniques to past the exam," said Long Dongmin, a part-time English teacher.
When it comes to reading and comprehension, children are taught that the words to the correct answer to a question can be found in the original text so they simply match words without understanding their meaning.
"They will get at least a passing 60 score by doing so," said Long.
Cheng Xiaotang, chief editor of the Elementary and Middle-school Foreign Language Education Department of the Beijing Normal University, is worried that the concentrated training will have a negative impact and that the children won't be ready or willing to take step by step English courses at their regular schools.
"Elementary school kids will naturally reach a level of English proficiency after years of orderly English learning," said Zhang Ke. "But the present rush for a PETS certificate only leads them to learn 'dumb English', meaning they can read some English but don't understand spoken English".
Last September, over 53,000 children aged between six and 15 in Beijing took the PETS exams, twice as many as adults. Ninety percent passed level one PETS which requires a score of 60 percent. Only 100 elementary school students took the PETS level three test in September.