High school language exams in students' native languages

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High school principals in the UK are discovering that immigrants can be a very useful resource for them. Schools are rated according to the number of passes their students obtain in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). There are 619,000 immigrants from Poland now living in the country, and Polish is available as a GCSE examination subject.

Polish is now the 5th most popular language to take at GCSE level. And 95% of those taking it gain one of the top 3 of the 9 grades (a much higher percentage than for languages like French or Spanish). Moreover, 97% of those who take Polish score worse on the English Language exam. The inference to draw is clear, and very probably true: schools are pushing Polish native speakers to take the exam, because it pushes up the school's GCSE rating.

It's a very obvious strategy, and there's nothing dishonest about it, though at least some of the commenters on this somewhat disapproving story in The Daily Mail seem to think it's cheating to pass an exam by exhibiting your mastery of your native language.

It's fairly clear that schools are using the same strategy with students who speak Portuguese and Arabic (see the graph in this story in The Economist), and if at least some are not doing the same with their immigrant speakers of at least Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Panjabi, and Urdu (perhaps in some areas also Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tamil, Welsh, or Yoruba), I can't think why not.

It's just an unintended consequence of several mutually reinforcing factors. The UK government pushes for schools to compete with each other to get GCSE passes because they think that will improve secondary education generally. Universities tend to regard GCSE passes in foreign languages as evidence of academic seriousness, and some require a foreign language pass as a prerequisite to admission, adding further to the premium. Principals therefore strategize about how to game the government's competition by legitimate means, and students with a non-English native language become a resource. Passing the GCSE in your native language is relatively easy, assuming you know enough English to understand the questions and write out simple translations: given mastery of the language itself, there is no additional conceptual content to master.

The government shouldn't set rules requiring schools to compete if they don't want to start a competition.

[Comments seem to have been left open on this post, perhaps because of its moderately serious subject matter. I can only apologise for that.]


  1. Ozaru said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    "95% of those taking it gain one of the top 3 of the 9 grades (a much higher percentage than for languages like French or Spanish)."

    What are the figures for English? It would be interesting to know if Poles are better at their native language (including understanding questions in the foreign tongue English), than British people are.

  2. John said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 4:49 am

    GCSE languages are easy, as are ASs, but A-levels are not. I did GCSE and AS Chinese without needing to study, but for A-level, we had literature, history and geography questions.

  3. Polish native speaker said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    It's a shame the papers (judging from samples on aqa.org.uk website) contain so many mistakes in their Polish parts. Unnecessary commas, no commas where needed, quaint expressions ('niepokój jest zażegnany' – what would that be, 'anxiety is staved off'?), lack of expected plurals ('dużo zadania domowego' – clearly a calque of 'a lot of homework'). The translators should have done a better job.

  4. Theo Vosse said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 6:06 am

    It's my experience (I'm Dutch, people have to take one to three foreign languages here, depending on the "profile" they chose) that the level of foreign language exams is much lower than for the native language, so it's possible that a "Polish" student scoring a high grade on Polish and a lower grade on English, might actually be better in English than in Polish.

  5. Harry said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    Well of course it's cheating "to pass an exam by exhibiting your mastery of your native language" — when it's a foreign language exam aimed at non-native speakers. In the case of Welsh, since you ask, there are different exams for learners and native speakers, and you're not supposed to enter as a learner if you're a native speaker — obviously, just as we wdn't expect a native speaker to enter an ESOL exam and allow that to improve the results of an English school in Madrid.

  6. EKSwitaj said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    Theo Vosse is correct. The assumption that anyone scoring higher on the Polish test than on the English test must be a native speaker of Polish is flawed. Frankly, the Mail article strikes me as a bit of anti-immigrant hype.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    @Theo Vosse and EKSwitaj: GKP drew his inference from the high scores on the Polish test (higher than those in popular foreign languages such as French and Spanish) as well as the lower scores the same people got on the English test.

    @Harry: I have a hard time calling something "cheating" if it's within the rules. If the British authorities have solved this problem for Welsh (and I did ask), and they consider it cheating to take the GCSE test in one's native foreign language, can't they change the rules easily?

  8. C Thornett said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    It might be interesting to compare the writing tasks which are part of a language GCSE with the writing tasks which are part of Adult ESOL Level 2, which is in theory equivalent to a language or English GCSE grades A-C. I've used the specifications for German as set out by AQA.

    The final writing component of the German GCSE has a time limit of 60 minutes and includes 2 tasks which should total between 400-600 words. Prior to the 60 minute period, students work on the two tasks under supervision, but are not timed. They can use dictionaries an course books prior to the final rewriting. Exemplar topics include: My life as a celebrity; A comparison of my country and another, and Holidays. The students choose 2 out of 3. Grammar and vocabulary required are highly prescribed and detailed in the exam specifications. It is difficult to compare the spoken component.

    I am not sure how this standard of language is supposed to match up to the Common European Framework, but I don't see how it can reach the B2 of ESOL Level 2.

    Adults taking what is supposed to be the same level for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages–not native speakers in other words) have rather different tasks to complete. These examples come from Trinity College London Level 2 ESOL Basic Skills. Students do not know the specific tasks in advance, although they will have practised writing similar tasks (report, formal letter, 'creative' story or essay). They have 100 minutes to carry out 3 writing tasks and must complete all 3 with no options. They need to produce approximately 750 words for these 3 tasks, including some planning and drafting as part of the 100 minutes with no advance preparation, not from drafts completed earlier. The tasks always include a factual report in moderately formal register on information provided, a formal letter (to an MP about a local problem, for example, or a letter of complaint), and a piece of less formal, more creative writing, such as a first person account of a significant event or a story which illustrates why money can or can't buy happiness.

    Some of the adults taking ESOL exams are still teenagers, not much older than those taking GCSEs in schools; many have had little if any formal education, and some may be elderly. They are asked to do considerably more in their language exams than in an 'equivalent' language GCSE. In terms of speaking, ESOL Level 2 students give a prepared but not memorised formal presentation of 5-6 minutes to an external examiner, followed by a question and answer session of similar length, engage in a role play of 4 minutes with the examiner which involves complaints and negotiating a resolution and then take part in a group discussion of up to 20 minutes with other students on a topic of current interest which may be controversial, such as whether CTV cameras promote public safety or infringe on personal privacy.

    These requirements are closer to those of native speaker English GCSE students, without the study of and testing on literature, or to the new Functional Skills English exam.

    Quite a few local secondary students whose parents or perhaps grandparent speak South Asian languages take GCSEs and A-levels in those languages. I have no complaint with this at all and think children in immigrant families should be encouraged to learn family languages to a good standard. I don't blame schools or families for getting good results where they can in current conditions.

    But, as some of my colleagues in ESOL have recently commented, our students are being asked to do considerably more with fewer resources for students or teachers, even once they can get into the ever more restricted classes.

  9. Jeff Carney said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    If the UK is anything like the US, it must be remembered that non-native speakers are often poorly literate in their native languages. If "schools are pushing Polish native speakers to take the exam," I wonder if:

    (1) Poles are an exception to this trend
    (2) the Polish students really are studying the language
    (3) the schools are cherry-picking their test-takers more strategically than has so far been suggested
    (4) some combination of the above.

  10. Peter S. said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    My grandfather, who grew up on a farm in Indiana, was the first person in his family to go to college. He studied very hard so as to pass the entrance exam to Purdue, except that he didn't worry about the language portion, as he had grown up in a German-speaking family and near a German-speaking town. Guess which part of the exam he failed. (Purdue took him anyway.)

  11. C Thornett said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    @ Jeff Carney: Most of the Eastern Europeans who have immigrated to the UK over the past 20 years or so have at least secondary education and they often have vocational, professional or university education as well.

  12. Circe said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    I was once mildly amused that UK examining bodies offered a Hindi GCSEs, and I had a look at the paper. I vaguely remember thinking then the paper was a joke: a native speaker could max it while half asleep. The hardest part would probably be the idea that after having read a Hindi passage, they would be expected to answer not in Hindi, but in English. The level of the exam seemed to roughly the same standard as the written sections of ESL tests like TOEFL.

    I guess the Hindi literature exam might be less trivial. But I have my doubts.

  13. Pi Madison said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    Circe —
    Given my experience taking foreign languages in the US school system, the more "obscure" the language, the lower the expectations seem to be. (Obviously Hindi is a widely spoken language, but much more foreign to the UK or US than Polish). For example, in a university 300-level French class, a student would be expected to be fairly conversational, while a 300-level Arabic class is much, much easier — perhaps that would explain the potential disparity between Hindi and Polish exams in the UK? Then again, there is a large Indian population there.

  14. Theo Vosse said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: my point is not about schools trying to get their students to get higher grades for free, but that any inferences on the level of English or Polish cannot be made without further analysis (as C Thornett describes), or a comparison between those with a high grade on Polish and the general population. If the "Poles" score considerably worse, then it might be a reason for action. Otherwise it's just a good way to get a child involved in h(is|er) parents' native language. Studying Polish is as valid as studying German, Spanish or French.

  15. Circe said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    Pi Madison- I think you might have a point there. Just learning to read one of the Indian scripts can take the better half of a semester, and the strict phonetics can take a while to get used to too. I am not sure how much easier Polish would be in that respect, though I can see how expectations in a French/German/Spanish course would be far higher.

    Also, regarding Indians in England, I was of the impression that most of them are not native Hindi speakers, with a large percentage of them being from the Punjab (native language: Punjabi) or Gujrat (native language: Gujrati) states. Of course, even though those languages have scripts that are quite different from Hindi, the alphabet is still the same, and the level of mutual intelligibility between Hindi and any of the other two would I think be far higher than, say, between English and Spanish or French.

  16. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    Universities tend to regard GCSE passes in foreign languages as evidence of academic seriousness

    I'm not sure this is true of qualifications in your native language. I work in an international school and a lot of our Chinese students take Chinese A-Level, but only a small proportion of universities will accept it. It's like General Studies.

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    @C Thornett, I would be surprised if GCSE is meant to reach B2 in the Common European Framework, because I think B2 roughly corresponds to A-level. I admit that I base this on personal experience – i.e. anecdote rather than data.

  18. Alex said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    In high school in the US, I took an SAT subject test in Spanish. I'm not a native speaker and had not yet lived in a Spanish-speaking country. Although I got a high numerical score, I was in a surprisingly low percentile; the scores were strongly skewed towards the high end. My teacher explained that native speakers were taking the test in large numbers to boost their scores.

    This annoyed me, because it seemed unfair to make me compete on the same percentile curve with native speakers. However, considering all of the advantages I got by growing up in a household of native-born speakers of standard English, the disadvantage on one SAT subject test pales in comparison. I never had to translate for my parents at doctors' offices, I wrote solid college admission essays without assistance, and I got a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the regular SAT. I can't really nurse a grudge against other students who were trying to make the most of their bilingualism when, for many of them, it was the only edge they had.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    @Theo Vosse: You're right, I should have addressed my comment just to EKSwitaj.

  20. mollymooly said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    Australia gets this right. (WA at least, not sure about other states.) It has separate school exams for e.g. Chinese as a native language and Chinese as a foreign language.

    Ireland gets this exactly wrong. The Irish (Gaelic) syllabus is too hard for the anglophone majority and too easy for the native speaker minority.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    @C Thornett

    It may be true that most of the adult immigrants in in the groups in question have a secondary education or more, however, none of the immigrants in question have a completed secondary education. We are specifically talking about immigrants in the process of getting an education in an English speaking country.

    I know that where I live in the U.S., in Spanish speaking families, the adults prefer written materials in Spanish, and the children prefer them in English. Because English is the language the children are used to reading and writing. They speak Spanish with their family, and maybe listen to Spanish language media, but in school they read and write English.

    So I get where Jeff Carney is coming from with his comments, and would be interested in seeing them addressed from the perspective of the children taking these tests, not their parents.

  22. C Thornett said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    @ Ellen K: I would not apply the statement "non-native speakers are often poorly literate in their native languages" to the UK Polish community. There are other immigrant groups for which this is more often true, and this tends to hamper language acquisition for adults and often hampers children's progress at school, especially when English is never spoken at home, but I would not apply this to most Eastern European immigrant communities.

    Parents who are literate and even well-educated in their first language are able to support their children in learning language exam skills. Parents who are not literate or are barely literate in their first language and who may have little or no education of any kind are rarely able to offer that support. Changing scripts can be an additional difficulty.

  23. Jeff Carney said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    @C Thornett

    Assuming you are correct about Eastern Europeans, and I have no reason to doubt you, that might explain why Polish is "the 5th most popular language to take at GCSE level." Most strategic cherry picking.

  24. hector said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    Children who grow up in an immigrant family and learn their parents' language by speaking with them often have no clue how to spell the words they are speaking. If the parents speak in a rural or minority dialect, the situation is worse. A significant part of language acquisition at the academic level is learning how to spell properly, so that written communication can take place.

    Having secondary schools compete with another strikes me as an invitation to disaster. "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying" is a mantra used in sports circles, and if it invades the school environment, the country will, over the long run, suffer for it. Whatever happened to the England of "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game"?

  25. Ellen K. said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

    @C Thornett: I took that statement you quote as applying to school children, since that, after all, is the topic of discussion. Thus, your previous reply, about adult eduction levels, was not relevant to that point, as I see it.

    You're point that educated parents can help their children learn for the tests seems to agree with the idea that was presented that learning to read the language of the country of origin well is not a given. As well as suggesting they are taught by their parents so they can pass the test. If so, that's an answer to how it differs from the communities we are familiar with in the U.S.

  26. michael farris said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 6:27 am

    Most Polish residents of the UK arrived after 2004. If the high school kids we're talking about are 17 now that means they likely arrived when they were over 8 years old. So would have had at least a year or so of elementary school (which begins at age 7 in Poland) and would have basic literacy. The great majority of their parents have completed some form of secondary education.

    Plus the children would probably still speak Polish at home which is probably filled with Polish media (written and broadcast) and many of them probably spend part of the year in Poland as well. I think most of them are best described as primary Polish speakers who live and function in an English language environment. This might change over the years or it may not.

    Also, I don't know if the word 'immigrant' is really appropriate. These are EU citizens living in another EU country for a shorter or longer time. The great majority of them will have no special reason to seek british citizenship. Many of them are planning on returning to Poland (though these plans may, of course, never happen) but most of them maintain ties with Poland and return on a regular basis for shorter or longer visits.

    The situation is not especially comparable with immigrants from the developing world or post-colonial societies.

  27. Don Campbell said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 6:56 am


    I would say Australia gets it as right as it can. The other states have similar approaches to WA, which is to split popular languages into two streams: native vs. second language. Note that this is only Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese in WA; Victoria (where I live) adds Korean as well.

    So in both these states, native speakers of every other language that has a course get a significant advantage. It's well known that it's impossible to get a top score in these languages because they will be taken by native speakers, but the number of students isn't sufficient to justify two streams.

  28. berenike said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    Well, Polish hasn't been my first language since I was about 4, but even I can see the Polish in the exam papers cited looks a bit dodgy!

  29. Laura said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    I took Italian GCSE in 1998, and there was a native Italian speaker in my school. She took the exam so that she would have a qualification in her native language (I don't think she was pushed into it). She didn't attend lessons before she took the exam (presumably it seemed a bit pointless to teach her her own language). I did considerably better than she did, and although I'm good at languages I'm not some kind of genius. Being a native speaker doesn't necessarily mean you know how to pass exams; I presume she fell down on reading the questions properly/not having done practice papers/being too complacent. Or maybe she just wasn't that bright – plenty of native English speakers do badly on English comprehension tests and would probably do poorly if given the English language tests universities give non-native speakers.

  30. Keith said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the government shouldn't set rules requiring schools to compete if they don't want to start a competition, yet I feel that the schools are playing to the letter of the law, and not to its spirit.

    As several others have pointed out, the GCSE in English is harder than the GCSEs in what are supposed to be foreign languages. It is therefore no surprise that candidates taking these papers in what are their native (or "home" languages, i.e., those spoken at home and within the family) score very highly.

    Badly designed incentives almost always end up promoting behaviour that leads to unexpected and undesired outcomes.

    But I'm in two minds about it. By steering Polish kids to take a Polish exam, we might think that they are being taught something that will be of marginal use in the job market when they leave school. But that might only be true of, for example, a 16 year old school-leaver with three or four GCSEs and looking for work in the UK. For a 16 year old with eight or nine GCSEs, including Polish, going on to A levels and then university, possibly returning to Poland, having studied the language will definitely be useful.

    In the end, I really don't care if the government shoots itself in the foot yet again with its perverse targets and incentives. What matters is whether studying for GCSE in "the home language" is good or not for the individual pupil.


  31. Just another Peter said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    @mollymooly: WA does, however, fall down in the reverse situation – they allow anyone to do IELTS (International English Language Testing System) even if English is their native language. I know this because I failed TEE English and IELTS was one of the English competence tests I was told I could take to qualify for university (I took the other).

  32. J. Goard said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    I have a hard time calling something "cheating" if it's within the rules. If the British authorities have solved this problem for Welsh (and I did ask), and they consider it cheating to take the GCSE test in one's native foreign language, can't they change the rules easily?

    If they followed your apparent ethical reasoning, how could they consider it cheating, since it currently follows the letter of the law? Your comment seems to be a "treason doth never prosper" kind of mind game.

    By my ethical reasoning, it's plain obvious that we've got to have an understanding of "cheating" based upon the spirit and purpose of a test first, and then subsequently use such principles to decide when and how to change the official rules. Happily doing whatever you can get away with according to the current rules strikes me as virtually a definition of "unethical", since it leaves no basis upon which to aim for rule improvements.

  33. Jonathan D said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

    Just another Peter, if the university only needs to know whether you can use English or not, why should they care where you learnt the language? There's no competition involved, just a standard of competence.

    The high school courses are a different matter altogether – there people are aiming to provide options that increase students' competence in the language and/or provide a basis for competition loosely based on ability to learn in general. Then it might make sense to insist on two streams, or, as for some languages in New South Wales, even three – background speakers, continuers (i.e. began studying before year 11) or beginners. In any case, the 'cheating' accusation depends on the presence of competition.

  34. John F said,

    March 26, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    I'm a native English speaker. At GCSE I got a B in English Language (as well as in Literature) and an A in French.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 26, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    @J. Goard: If the British government does follow my ethical reasoning, then indeed they don't consider it cheating to take a test in one's native language, or to encourage students to do so. I don't see the slightest trace of a mind game on my part. Cheating on a test is commonly defined as breaking the rules. (By the way, I understand "Treason doth never prosper" as something different—it's traitors making sure retroactively that no one will accuse them of what they did.)

    I agree with you that the rules should be based on the spirit and purpose of the test. Thus if the rules allow or encourage behavior that's against the spirit or purpose, the people who make the rules should change them. However, I wouldn't call that behavior "cheating".

    If students and schools are happily (or resentfully or unemotionally) doing whatever they can get away with, I don't see how that deprives the authorities of a basis for improving the rules. The schools and students are entirely different from the authorities who make the rules (or am I misunderstanding the system?). The authorities would change the rules because they feel students and schools are getting away with something.

  36. George said,

    March 27, 2012 @ 4:23 am

    I'm coming in so late here that it's quite likely that nobody will even get to read this but for what it's worth…

    To echo somewhat, albeit not exactly, the point made by Alex at 3.30 pm on 24 March, if we're talking about native speakers of foreign languages who have English as a second language, then any advantage they have in the 'foreign' language examination is probably more than cancelled out in other examinations, so it would seem a bit mean-spirited to penalise these pupils (peeve alert – I have a problem with the use of 'student' for those in secondary education; don't get me started on referring to 6-year-olds as students…). It's a bit more complicated where true bilingualism is concerned.

    However, people can and do have all sorts of educational advantages and disadvantages.

    If it's unfair for someone who learned Polish at home to take the same Polish language examination as those who have not learned Polish at home, then surely it would be equally unfair to allow those who grew up in homes full of books to take the same English examination as those who grew up in homes where there were no books.

    It would be unfair to allow those who were introduced to number puzzles at a young age by mathematically-oriented parents to take the same mathematics examination as those who weren't.

    It would be unfair to allow those who grew up in homes where intellectual subjects are discussed at the dinner table to take the same philosophy examination (o.k., that's stretching it if we're talking about the examination system of an anglophone country) as those who grew up in homes where people don't even eat together at the same table, never mind have intellectual discussions over dinner…

    Now, we can perhaps agree that all this actually is unfair in the sense that life is unfair. And we can all perhaps further agree that the educational system should attempt to tackle such unfairness. But I honestly don't believe that it can be addresssed at the examination stage of the process.

    So, unlike some commenters above, I don't think that obliging native speakers of foreign languages to take a different examination from non-native speakers is getting it right at all.

    Firstly, it penalises one category of pupil for one type of advantage, while leaving other types of advantages unaddressed.

    Secondly, who decides whether a given pupil is ineligible to sit the 'normal' examination and on what basis? Where the pupil was born? Where his or her parents were born? And what if the parents were so determined to assimilate into their new country that they deliberately avoided using their own language in the home (which does happen)? Or if one parent was a native speaker of the foreign language but not the other?

    Thirdly, the simple fact is that the Polish kid is better at Polish than the English kid is and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with recognising this.

  37. Polish mum said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    Polish children attend Polish Schools on Saturday where they learn gramma and reading. They are thaught by professional Polish teachers. My son will take Polish exam at GCSE but it will be a challange for him as he knows English (in rading/writing) better than Polish. The fact we speak Polish at home is not enough advantage to pass the Polish exam with a grade A, as some people judge. Polish children got good preparation for it in Polish Schools or, sometimes, parents taught them at home.
    Very often it is even difficult to say which language is first for a Polish child who lives in UK. To my knowlegde, many Polish teenagers speak English between them even when being in Polish environment (for example in Polish School). Taking Polish exam at GCSE level is a big advantage for them as they have motivation to learn how to write and read in Polish. But it is still a challange. Writing and reading are not a given skills, children often struggle. So yes, Polish is like a foreign language for many of them.

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