An Introduction to China’s College English Test (CET)

The National College English Test (CET 全国大学英语四六级考试) is a large-scale standardized exam administered by the Ministry of Education in China. In 2017 alone, nearly 10 million people took CET4 and CET6, the exam’s two levels. This huge number of test takers may suggest that more people take the CET than any other English test for non-native speakers of English—even those that are better known. As a comparison, more than three million [1] people worldwide took the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), a leading exam, over the past year.

The CET is widely recognized among Chinese institutions and employers. Not only is the CET ubiquitous on academic transcripts, passing CET4 has historically been a requirement to receive one’s degree—although this is changing. With China a top sending country of international students, it is helpful to understand what the popular test entails. This article provides an overview of the CET testing system and serves as a practical guide to its content and grades.

Purposes of the CET

The fundamental purpose of the CET is to comprehensively evaluate English education in Chinese colleges and universities. The test assesses students’ English proficiency against the teaching goals prescribed by the Ministry of Education in the College English Syllabus and Teaching Requirements [2]. The syllabus states that college English curriculum must constitute 10 percent of a student’s total credits of undergraduate study—about 16 credits—roughly equivalent to 280 teaching hours total at four hours a week for four 18-week semesters. The design of CET4 and CET6 corresponds to the two standards set by the Teaching Requirements. CET4 refers to the “general standard,” and CET6 reflects the “higher standard” described in the requirements.

In the 31 years since its introduction in 1987, the CET has gone through several revisions. In 1999, the spoken English test (CET-SET) was added. In 2006, the proportion of the listening test was increased to 35 percent from 20 percent. During the reforms of 2012, the spoken test was given by computer for the first time. The structures of CET4 and CET6 have been completely aligned since December 2013. These changes aimed at emphasizing the test’s speaking and listening components, and strengthening the practical application of the English language in the learning and professional environments.

However, although the test adequately assesses the teaching of English in Chinese colleges and universities, the direct tie between the teaching goals and the CET makes it makes it less successful [3] at determining students’ individual English proficiency. As a result, it is easy for both students and institutions to fall into a test-oriented approach to learning and teaching.


The CET written test is administered twice a year, in June and December; the spoken test is given in May and November. Since January 2007, only students currently enrolled in associate, bachelor’s, or graduate programs can sign up for the CET, and they must do so collectively through the university rather than as individual students.

Students must complete the College English IV curriculum to take CET4. To take CET6, they must complete the College English VI curriculum and score over 425 in CET4. CET-SET is not a required part of the CET. Students should register for CET-SET separately after they take the current CET4 or CET6 exam. They must also fulfill any other requirements of the institution or provincial authorities.

Interpretation of the CET Grades

The CET test results comprise four sections, each of which is scored. Listening and reading each account for 35 percent; writing and translation together make up the remaining 30 percent. The highest possible cumulative score is 710. The CET is a norm-referenced test: The final score shows how well test takers have done relative to the whole group. The formula is:

A graphic showing the formula used to calculated total school [4]

There is no score threshold that separates passing from failing; however, the majority of universities and employers consider 425 the cutoff, making it the de facto cumulative passing score.

CET-SET is graded in three levels: A, B, and C. Grades lower than C are not reported, since they suggest that the student does not have communication skills in English.

Structure of the CET

The test content is chosen from daily English conversations, television programs and broadcasts, lectures, newspapers, magazines, books, and journals. The testing guideline [5] includes a list of 5,418 vocabulary words, according to the syllabus. The following tables show a breakdown of the CET components in the written and spoken tests.

Four tables showing the structure and content of the CET4 written test, the CET-SET4 spoken test, the CET6 written test, and the CET-SET4 spoken test [6]

The Changing Perception of the CET

In the past 20 years or so, although most institutions in China required the passing of CET4 for students to qualify for a degree, that requirement was never [7]part of the official policy of the Ministry of Education, and many universities have now ended that controversial practice. More recently, questions have been raised about the arbitrary use of a CET score for other purposes, such as admission to graduate programs—and even non-academic uses, such as in applications for residential permits.

Moreover, in a vast country like China, where some education districts provide a much higher quality education than others, the quality of English instruction before college is drastically uneven. While freshmen in certain regions might have met the requirements for CET4 even prior to beginning their tertiary level English studies, students from other regions might struggle for years to catch up. It is challenging if not impossible for the national CET to accommodate the regional disparities in English education.

With the increased use of other English testing services in China, such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS, TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), and BEC (Business English Certificate), the CET is coming under greater scrutiny, particularly its overemphasis on reading and vocabulary, and less-than-effective assessment [8] of the communication skills of students, as noted by the former deputy minister of education, Qidi Wu.

China has announced its goal of becoming an international education hub [9] in the near future. In recognition of English as the lingua franca, the Testing Center of the Ministry of Education published its first English standards, in April to improve national English education and testing.

CSE seek to address several unresolved issues, including the disconnection between secondary and tertiary English teaching and testing, and the fact that China’s domestic English testing system is not internationally recognized. The standards aim at clarifying what learners of English should know and be able to do, and seek to function as a metric that can be applied across multiple testing methods.

For example, the British Council and China’s Ministry of Education have agreed on a long-term partnership in education [10], which includes collaborative research on linking United Kingdom English tests to CSE. China’s National Education Examinations Authority has also been working with Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the U.S. to map the future [11] of connecting TOEFL, an ETS product, and CSE.

CSE are composed of a series of detailed metrics that describe all aspects of English skill, including writing, speaking, listening, and reading. In addition, the standards provide a framework for the assessment of pragmatics, oral interpretation, written translation, oral expression, and written communication. However, how the new standards will bridge gaps in pre-college English instruction and make an impact on the CET remains to be seen.

Click to download a sample score report and test questions [12].