China’s 2020 HSK reform: How different will the new HSK be?

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Recently I have been blogging a lot about HSK 6 and how it relates to people’s language proficiency in Mandarin. Is it worth taking the test? Well, just when I was about to sign up for the exam, someone notified me HSK will be completely reformed!

“HSK is about to be reformed”

The big news was shared on the HSK Official Twitter account, the wording rather cryptic. Apparently the new HSK will consist of 9 levels instead of 6:

HSK Official Twitter message: "HSK is about to be reformed", 21.05.2020.

But as for all the other details, even now three weeks later, I couldn’t find any news concerning the HSK reform on their official website (and still can’t (20-01-2021)). The link they shared in the above tweet strangely enough seems to have nothing to do with the announced updates to the HSK system, or does it? The article covers the language requirements for overseas students in China who study medicine in English university programs, but what about the new HSK exam?

Isn’t it odd to officially announce a big reform that will happen this year and then share a link to an Chinese article that offers very little explanation to the average HSK candidate?

“Three Stages and Nine Levels”

This is what the new HSK system looks like. Each “stage” is divided into three levels:

China's language test HSK: Three stages and nine levels (2020 reform)
Image via @山下智博/Weibo

What does this mean?

The best article I could dig up so far was published in The Beijinger which apparently was able to win some inside info. Since I’m not sure about the source, I think it’s still too early to go into the details of the new system. Many questions remain to be answered: Will an oral examination be mandatory for the higher levels? How will the progression between the levels be? Will HSK 9 more or less match the current HSK 6 or will it be harder?

Concerning this last question the article does give an answer, but honestly I don’t yet know what to make of it. It says the difficulty between the different test levels will increase more gradually, reducing the gaps between the levels to some extent:

Compared to the current standards for HSK 1 to 6, it is not hard to see how the new system will alter the overall difficulty curve. For example, the current HSK 6 requires takers to master cumulative 5,000 words, half of which are new, and 2,663 characters, 978 of which are new. In HSK 3.0 [Kaohongshu: the new system] though, students need to memorize 5,456 words in total, 1,140 of which haven’t previously appeared, while the number of characters needed has been reduced to 1,800, 1,500 of which should already be familiar. That’s good, right? Not so fast.

All those words have to go somewhere, in this case, they’ve been divided among the lower levels: the threshold to pass HSK levels 1 to 4 have now all increased, with the word list for each expanding drastically, by a multiple of three or four. Let’s take HSK 1 for example. Whereas 150 words is currently sufficient for someone to pass, that number will rise to 500 words in HSK 3.0. No word list has yet to be released for any of the levels.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

New HSK requirements for international students in China

What does this mean for people who want to study in China? Which HSK level is required? We don’t know yet:

There has also been no word on what these changes will mean for graduation requirements for international students in China. Until now, foreign students who study in Chinese are required to pass the HSK 6 test prior to graduation, while a HSK 4-5 certificate is usually sufficient for students taught in foreign languages to pursue graduate or higher-level degrees. If you major in medicine or a related field, an additional Medical Chinese Test (MCT) may be required.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

Is the new HSK system an improvement?

One major problem of the HSK levels in the past was that they were supposed to correspond directly to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, except they didn’t, meaning that HSK 6 was nowhere near the “almost-native” C2 level, HSK 4 by now means matched B2 and so on. To me at this point it’s not at all clear if the reform’s intention is to eradicate this flaw and bring HSK closer to the European Framework. Will the higher levels go beyond the “old” HSK 6? Will they alter the structure of the exams? What’s the reasoning behind the reform?

Two things I would welcome: a more gradual progression between each level and a closer correlation to the European Framework. On that I agree with The Beijinger:

While the changes seem intimidating at first, we’re all for the levels being rebalanced to better reflect an individual’s proficiency. For too long, levels 1-3 have felt little more than token certificates, too easy to pass with a little effort and making the jump to HSK 4 and up too substantial. Finally, adjusting the test to better reflect the CEFR system should help give the HSK improved weighting and caliber on the international stage.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

But will that be what we’ll get? I hope we receive an update soon. Then we’ll know what Hanban, the organization behind HSK, has in mind with the new HSK system. Maybe the changes won’t be that radical after all. Only time (and vocabulary lists and mock exams) will tell.


Update, 02.06.2020 – from the Chinese Testing International Barcelona:

Lately, news such as “HSK will have 9 levels! The Chinese level 3.0 test will be coming soon” have attracted a lot of attention inside and outside China. The concerns and inquiries of Chinese students and teachers who are dedicated to the international teaching of this language come one after another, which excites us and shows unprecedented support. In order to answer the main concerns, the “Standards of the Chinese level in international education”, the Chinese proficiency test (HSK) and the relationship between the two will be explained.

With the development of the teaching of the Chinese language and the changes in the global needs of teaching and learning the Chinese language, it is necessary to adjust the “International Standards of Proficiency in Chinese” (published by the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in 2007), to Continuously improve the international teaching and learning of Chinese. In 2017, we began research and development of a new standard, namely “Chinese level standards in international education” (hereinafter referred to as “Level standards”). This research has already been completed and will therefore be launched in the second half of the year.

“Level Standards” is based on the essence of Chinese language and writing, and has been nurtured by the strengths of other language standards in the world, inheriting the experience of teaching Chinese as a foreign language and the international teaching of Chinese. . From this base, divide the Chinese level of non-native speakers into three categories: beginner, medium and high, and each category is subdivided into three levels, that is, three categories with nine levels. Each level description includes three parts: verbal communication skills, content of thematic tasks and quantitative indicators of the language, and describes each level from five aspects according to their abilities to listen, speak, read, write and translate. “Level Standards” is an open and inclusive professional standard system that, after launch, will lead all international fields of Chinese language learning, teaching, testing and assessment, and will become an important indicator of reform and development of international Chinese teaching.

The main change to the next “Level Standard” consists of three new advanced levels 7-9. A higher level of the Chinese language requires students to understand complex subjects in various fields and genres, carry out in-depth exchanges and discussions; are able to express themselves on complex issues of social, professional, daily activities, academic research, etc., have a flexible and effective organization of language, with a clear logic, a rigorous structure, a coherent and reasonable speech, and can communicate decently in various situations; Be flexible in using various communication strategies and resources to complete communication tasks, gain a deep understanding of Chinese cultural knowledge, and possess an international vision and intercultural communication skills.

To this end, we will expand the levels by developing the Advanced HSK exam (levels 7-9), with the premise of guaranteeing the stability of HSK levels 1-6. The advanced exam is mainly for foreign students who specialize in Chinese language and literature, as well as for students from other majors with Chinese proficiency who come to China to study and for Sinology researchers abroad. A single exam will be implemented in the levels 7-9 test for the three levels, which means that only one exam will be added and will be determined by the score if the level 7, 8 or 9 is obtained. The Advanced HSK exam (Level 7-9) is scheduled to be released in the first half of next year.

This text is a translation of the Chinese original and is for informational purposes only.

Chinese Testing International

June 2, 2020 (Source)

Update, 20.06.2020 – from Skritter

Skritter published the below overview on their YouTube channel showing the new levels and vocabulary requirements from “HSK 3.0”. If this information is correct, there will be three new levels on top of HSK 6. The current sixth level will be downgraded to a more appropriate intermediate level. Only those passing the seventh level will be able to call themselves “advanced”. The vocabulary for the advanced levels will be significantly increased (or actually this is true for all levels).

On the whole, “HSK 3.0” will be more difficult and – according to this information – the new levels will correspond more closely to the European Framework (someone who masters HSK 9 in the new system would truly have C2 proficiency for example). But we can’t really be sure until an official statement with more details has been issued by Hanban.

HSK 3.0 - new levels overview
YouTube screenshot. Source: Skritter

HSK 3.0 updates, 18.01.2021

Hard to believe, but It’s still unclear on which date HSK 3.0 will be launched exactly. Without any official updates and information, much about HSK 3.0 still remains speculation. Any news? Well, a longtime Chinese-Forums member compiled a first rough (unofficial) HSK 3.0 vocabulary list which can be downloaded via Dropbox. It is based on this paper which presents the following HSK vocabulary breakdown:

Provisional HSK 3.0 vocabulary breakdown

The same forum-member published a HSK 3.0 FAQ section on Reddit which summarizes the latest information (and rumors) about the HSK reform and is worth sharing:

FAQ about the NEW HSK (03.08.2020) (Source: Reddit)

Q: What changes? A: An increase of 6,092 words, going from 5,000 to 11,092 words, divided over 3 categories corresponding to the CEFR groups which are further divided into 9 HSK levels. The new progression will be less of an inverted pyramid and the newly added words will be divided across said levels.

Q: What is the new Vocab? A: The official vocabulary is so far unknown, but we can make an educated guess. The author of the essay《汉语国际教育汉语水平等级标准全球化之路》***, 刘英林 Liu Yinglin, beckoning in the new HSK structure in 2020 has published a book with the corresponding amount of vocab (11,092 words).

Q: Should I still keep studying for/take the current HSK? A: Yes. If we take in mind the 2010 changes to the HSK: all grammar and the vast majority of vocabulary will carry over. Most, if not all, HSK exams are taken online so if you require an HSK certificate for a course/job you should still take it.

Q: How can I prepare for the new HSK? A: By spending more time on non-course content. Studying only the HSK vocabulary will no longer be enough (at least for the reading section), so venture off the current HSK Standard course and start consuming media and books, or whatever you can get your hands on at your specific level.

Q: Will my old HSK certificate still be valid? A: \[speculation\] Current HSK certificates will be valid for another 2 years. Though for graduate programs they might implement the changes sooner.

Q: When will the new HSK be official? A: Either Winter of 2020 or Spring of 2021.

Q: When/where to buy the new HSK books? A: The first materials will probably be released by BLCUP (Beijing Language and Culture University Publisher), expect this to coincide with the official release of the test.

Q: Will the new HSK be 4+ times more difficult??? A: Not necessarily, the amount of characters you’re required to know has only increased by a few hundred and the same holds true for the grammar covered. What this does entail is that you won’t be able to pass the new HSK by solely learning the course vocab and neglecting any extra-curricular consumption of content. But, this time it will include an (optional?) translation section and the HSKK spoken test has been integrated.

Q: How about the TOCFL? A: The Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) is a Taiwan specific test and is thus not affected by the new HSK changes (which is a mainland test).

Source: Reddit

Go East Mandarin: “We’re at a presentation about the new HSK levels” (01.11.2020) (Source: Reddit)

GoEast Mandarin is a Chinese language school in Shanghai. They posted the following picture on Reddit which suggests that the HSK 3.0 reform will not affect the existing six HSK levels, but merely will add three additional levels on top. They did provide some additional details on their website. I don’t think this affects the overall validity of the “educated guesses” by the Chinese-Forums member or Skritter, but again, we have to wait and see to be certain.

(Source: Reddit) 教育汉语水平等级标准
Translation: Chinese international education Chinese-level standard grading
HSK3.0只增加7-9级,1-6级不变
Translation: HSK 3.0 only adds levels 7 – 9, levels 1 through 6 are unchanged

Latest HSK 3.0 updates, 20.01.2021

Yesterday I sent an email to two Confucius institutes (one in Germany, one in the Netherlands), asking when it would be possible to take the HSK 7 – 9 exams and in what way the newly added levels would be different from the HSK as we know it.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Here’s the reply from the Confucius Institute in the Netherlands. It confirms what it says on the picture above and corresponds with the information shared earlier by the Chinese Testing International Barcelona from June 2020, that is, the HSK 3.0 reform will not affect the existing HSK levels 1 – 6, but will mainly add three additional levels. Here the original mail with translation:

关于HSK 7-9级,暂时还没有出台相关的文件和方案。
目前我们了解到的信息只是汉考国际会在保证HSK 1-6级考试稳定的前提下,延伸开发HSK高等(7-9级)考试。考试主要面向中国语言文学专业的外籍学生,以及汉语水平较高的其他专业来华留学生、海外汉学研究者等群体。7-9级考试将实行一试3级,也就是说,只增加一次考试,通过分数来确定7-9三个级别。具体的信息,会在我们收到总部的文件后在我院的官网上与大家分享。
希望上面的回答能够解决你的部分疑惑。

Google Translate: Regarding HSK Levels 7-9, no relevant documents and plans have been issued yet. At present, the information we have is only that Hankao International will extend the development of the HSK advanced (level 7-9) test under the premise of ensuring the stability of the HSK level 1-6 test. The exam is mainly for foreign students majoring in Chinese language and literature, as well as international students from other majors with higher Chinese proficiency, and overseas Sinology researchers. The 7-9 level test will be implemented with one try for all 3 levels, that means, only one additional test will be used to determine the three levels of 7-9 through the score. Specific information will be shared with you on the official website of our institute after we receive the documents from the headquarters. Hope the above answer can solve some of your questions.

The mail from the Confucius institute in Germany states the same, adding a rough time frame for the launch:

汉考国际最新的HSK3.0还未正式落地,就目前公布的信息来看HSK3.0主要是增加了高等 7-9 三个级别

考试主要面向中国语言文学专业的外籍学生, 以及汉语水平较高的其他专业来华留学生、海外汉学研究者等群体。7-9 级考试将实行一试 3 级,也就是说,只增加一次考试,通过分数来确定 7-9 三个级别。HSK 高等(7-9 级)考试计划于最晚明年上半年推出

一旦HSK3.0政策信息落地,我们将第一时间发布考试相关信息,请随时关注。

Google Translate: The latest HSK 3.0 of Hankao International has not yet been officially released. According to the information currently released, HSK 3.0 mainly adds three advanced levels 7-9. The exam is mainly for foreign students majoring in Chinese language and literature, as well as international students from other majors with higher Chinese proficiency, and overseas Sinology researchers. The 7-9 level exam will be implemented at 3 levels, that is to say, only one additional test will be used to determine the 7-9 three levels through scores. The HSK Advanced (Level 7-9) test is scheduled to be launched in the first half of next year at the latest. Once the HSK 3.0 policy information is implemented, we will release the test-related information as soon as possible, please feel free to pay attention.

So to sum up the main information from these two emails:

  • “HSK 3.0 mainly adds three advanced levels 7-9” on top of the existing six levels, “under the premise of ensuring the stability of the HSK level 1-6 test”. To me this sounds as HSK 1 – 6 are not affected by the reform, but I’m not fully sure.
  • The new levels HSK 7 – 9 are targeted at overseas M.A. students and researchers studying / working in China in fields that require advanced Mandarin language skills. This probably means HSK 7 – 9 won’t concern most Chinese learners, only a very small group of students and academics.
  • Candidates are supposed to take the advanced test only once to determine their HSK level. My interpretation: there will be one exam for the HSK levels 7 – 9.
  • At the latest, the new HSK 7 – 9 exam will be launched by the first half of next year. This doesn’t sound like the new levels will come as early as this spring.

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on the HSK reform or share any updates in the comments below.

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10 thoughts on “China’s 2020 HSK reform: How different will the new HSK be?

  1. Wow your news in the new changes shaken me because I just decide to go for HSK5, the September slot. I visited the homepage of test centre again this morning to find that the latest updates on anything was on 14 May. But nothing was mentioned on this Hsk 6 to 9 changes. Anyway, I took the effort and wrote to them, if I got any news or verification, will keep u posted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the update! Seems the HSK center in Singapore has not been informed about any reforms to the HSK system? I think it’s unlikely this thing will come in this year anyway. But if you’re planning to take the old HSK exam now, you probably want to know how it compares to the new one or maybe you want to wait, no?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I heard about it, the first thing I thought was that they were trying to go back to the old system! Let’s see.

    Also, what a coincidence that they announced the change just a few days after you published your previous post about the exam 😀

    Like

  3. Thanks for this — I was so confused when I first heard the news! Anyway, doesn’t affect me too much as I’m still at a fairly low level. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I plan to take HSK1 this year and have to admit that the news shocked me at first but I guess we won’t be seeing the new exam format this year.

    p/s: I’m glad that I found your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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