The Effectiveness of Standardized Test Scores of Chinese International Student on College Level Academic Writing in The United States

Yuan Zhang

Produced in Agnes Starks Spring 2016 UWP1



Nowadays, there are an increasing number of Chinese students choose to study abroad in the United States. Researchers report that the number of international students might increases to approximately 7 million by the year of 2020 (Altbach, 2009).As students whose native language are not English, it is very important that they gain the college equivalent level of English writing skills in order to succeed in US colleges. Though there are TOEFL scores and SAT scores as prerequisites of college admission to test the writing skills of Chinese students, there are still a lot of them need to take ESL (English as Second Language) classes. My study focuses on the question “how effective are the SAT writing and TOEFL writing scores to determine if UC Davis Chinese international students are prepared for academic writing?” Through personal interviews with Chinese students, I am interested on whether Chinese students think they are prepared for college writing and then compared the results with their TOEFL and SAT writing scores.


There is usually an assumption that Chinese students are good test takers. In the statistic data summarized by Scott Jaschik in his article “SAT Scores Drop”, the SAT writing scores of Asian-American is avergely 531, while that of white students is 513, following by the decresing trend of other ethnicity in 2015. The fact that Asian-American actually got even higher writing scores than white students would be the best proof that they are good at SAT writing. We should be aware that Asian-American is not the same as the Asian international students including Chinese students. They have different experiences in English writing. Asian-American are used to write in schools in the United States. However, Asian international students learn writing in a non-English-speaking environment, they have not actually write in colleges in the United States. It is actually very hard to find statistics of Chinese students’ SAT scores. According to my small sample from myself and the other three interviwee who are also Chinese international students, the average of our SAT writing scores is 647.5. It seems really high, but UC Davis has a minimum requirement of 580 on SAT writing score based on data of students admitted in 2015. However, opposite to such high SAT scores, people do not usually say that Chinese students are good acadamic writers. According to Terry Santos in his paper Professors’ Reactions to theAcademic Writing of Nonnative-Speaking Students, he suggests that the professors find that there are “generally academically unacceptable errors”, with “lexical errors” rated as the most serious in a Chinese student’s paper. It is also the truth that Chinese students are not scored high in college classes.

Most people use SAT test scores to the reflect students on their preparness for college. However, from my experience, it seems that the SAT writing scores does not accurately predict Chinese students’ actual wrting ability for college level. Therefore, using a small sample of Chinese students from UC Davis, I am researching the following questions. How effective the scores on the writing portion of standardized test are to determine if students are prepared for academic writing? How is Chinese students so different from students of other ethnity? Although scholars have examined Chinese students writing skills all the time, I did not find any research papers that directly reveal the opinions of the Chinese students themselves. Therefore, in order to gain more understanding to this research question, I decided to conduct more primary researches. In order to have more comprehensive understanding, I decided to conduct interviews from Chinese students. I want to know that in UC Davis, how does the Chinese students feel about their English skills and the papers they write.

The University of California, Davis has its own system of English writing classes. International students with SAT writing scores higher than 680 can skip all the writing classes created specifically for international students and go directly to UWP1, which is a course required nearly all students to take. If their SAT writing scores are lower than 680, they need to take ELPE (English Language Placement Exam) and they will be placed in a range of writing classes including UWP21, 22,23 and WLD 57 based on performance. The UWP 21 is the lowest level focusing on correcting grammar. UWP 22 is the next lowest, usually focusing on essay development. WLD 57 is higher than UWP 21 to 23, and also one step below UWP1. During my interviews, I included students with different starting point of writing classes in order to generalize the population.

Researchers Position

Because I am a Chinese student and there are a lot of friends around me are Chinese students as well. I have talked to a lot of them and nearly all of them worried about their performances in writing classes and would be freak out for an essay assignment in classes of their majors. They would be concerned to take a general education that has WE requirements(refers to “writing experiences” in General Education Categories, indicating that these courses requires paper writing) As for me, I always worry too much about my essay assignments. Even when my teacher says it is good enough, I still don’t have confidence. Therefore, in my prediction, I would expect that Chinese students feel not confident about their English writing skills, even though they have already gotten pretty high scores on standard test.


I conducted interviews face-to-face with three Chinese students: Haoting Pan and Shiyu Tu and Zhiying Li. I developed a set of open-ended interview questions for my interviewee. The questions for Chinese students mainly focus on what are their opinions on college writing and whether they think they are prepared:

What scores did you have on the TOEFL and SAT tests?

Do you feel prepared for college writing before you coming to UC Davis?

After a few quarters here, how do you feel now?

What aspect in writing do you think that you are good at?

What aspect do you think that you are bad at?

What university English writing courses did you take?

What other papers you have wrote in your major courses?

How did you feel when you needed to take University Writing courses?

What did you think before taking the classes that has “WE”?

In each paper you wrote, did you feel confident on your grammar skills? Sentence structures? Organization?



Through my interviews with the three Chinese students, I found a lot of interesting facts. Jiaqi Xu got fair scores on TOEFL and SAT writing. She started from UWP 21 and took writing classes all the way to UWP1. She takes writing classes only because that she has to. She said that she did not feel prepared for college writing before coming to UC Davis. Jiaqi analyzed that because TOEFL and SAT did not focus on the credibility of resources. Sometimes people could create stories or pulling them from memories. However, college papers rely heavily on sources. Citations are something extremely important but she did not learned from TOEFL and SAT. When choosing GE courses, she would avoid for all cost to take classes with paper writing. Interesting, her English writing skills are pretty good actually. In the University Writing Program class, she can usually get a score from fair to good for the first draft. Though she is prepared in her writing skills for college, she is not prepared in her mind. She has a natural fear of writing in English. I analyze that maybe it is out of her comfort zone.


Zhiying Li got a pretty high score on SAT writing, high enough for him to directly take UWP1. However, he chose to take English courses starting from UWP 21. During the interview, he confessed that the reason why he chose to start with UWP21 was that he did not feel that his writing ability was good enough to get an A in UWP1. Therefore, he wanted to lay a more solid foundation on writing by taking UWP 21-23 classes, which were graded with pass/no pass. He said that TOEFL and SAT tests emphasize on grammar, so he was pretty confident with his grammar skills for colege writing. On the contrary, he found that he lacks the skill of revising and editing. He said that when learning TOEFL or SAT writing, the teachers usually let him write about a topic, grade the essay and then move directly onto the next topic. However, college writing focuses on editing and rewriting. There would be several drafts of improvement before the final draft came out. This was something that he started to know about after taking English classes in college.


The third student named Haoting Pan scored 750 on SAT writing and 27 on TOEFL. Because the SAT score was high enough for her to skip all UPW 21-23 and WLD 57, she came directly to UWP1. However, when being asked the question that “Do you feel prepared for college writing before you coming to UC Davis?”, interestingly she also said no. The reason was that SAT and TOEFL writing tests usually have fomulars. Remembering the fomula, and preparing the examples make it relatively easy to get a fairly high scores on the tests. However, coming to the college, she found that there were many different types of writing, which could not be applied with fomulas at all. For example, in the UWP1 she was instructed to write a research project. The use of the primary and the secondary research was a key point to a research project. However, she did not learn anything about that during the studying of SAT and TOEFL writing, so she had a hard time at the beginning. She majors in Civil Engneering, so the other writing she have ever written is lab reports. She was not afraid of writing, but found that there were still a lot for her to learn in writing even if she got pretty high scores on these standard tests.


In general, no matter how much the scores Chinese students receive in the SAT and TOEFL writing, they do not feel that they are as prepared for college writing. The reasons behind this result has several causes. First of all, Chinese style of teaching standard tests usually instructing students to memorize frames and examples. Second, the standard tests have a specific genre, so that they only learned how to write those acdamic writing. The last reason is that TOEFL and SAT does not require work citation, so that they usually have no clue of how to avoid plagrism. Therefore, when they find that they need to write lab reports, narratives, research papers, advising papers, etc. in college, they would become panic as there are no procedures to follow. Therefore, I have a suggestion to the Chinese English-teaching angencies. I suggest them not only teach writing for taking SAT and TOEFL test, but they should also teach preparation for writing in college. In this way, Chinese students would be more successful in future college writing.


Altbach, PG., Reisberg, L. & Rumbley. (2009). Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution. UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, Paris.

Jaschik, S. (2015). SAT Scores Drop. Inside Highered. Retrieved from

Santos, T. (2012). Professors’ Reactions to the Academic Writing of Nonnative-Speaking Students. TESOL Quarterly. 22(1), 69–90. DOI: 10.2307/3587062