It seems fewer and fewer people recall that the HSK used to come in two flavors: New and Old. While “they just don’t make them like they used to” is a lament we often utter when recalling the “good old days,” the atrocity that was the old HSK brings no such nostalgia.

The old pre-2010 HSK was horrible. Terrible. Completely impractical. The trick-question laden stuff of unintelligible nightmares. The Asian equivalent of forcing a toddler to quote Finnegan’s Wake verbatim.

The new post-2010 HSK is all roses and beautiful vistas of practical and realistic understanding of high-school level Chinese.

The Improvements

In the old HSK, you could meet four pages of dense Chinese text, followed by 3 detail-oriented questions that had little to do with whether or not you have a clue what the article was even about. You’ve only got a few minutes before you need to move on, so attempting to read any of it is a total waste.

In the new HSK, you’ve got a few paragraphs, followed by questions carefully crafted to test the student’s overall comprehension.

The old HSK could be passed by a Japanese student who put in a few weeks of prep, but completely unable to communicate even the simplest ideas in Chinese. It would then be flunked by non-Asaians who had been speaking Chinese fluently for decades.

In the old HSK, you’d be confronted with obscure historical and cultural references that would baffle the average Chinese person on the street. Stupid.

In the new HSK, you’re required to read a straight-forward 1,000 character article, have it taken away from you, then handed a blank piece of paper to summarize what you read in 400 characters. Brilliant.

The Complaint

There is one valid complaint about the new HSK: It doesn’t go very high. The old HSK had a scoring system from 1 to 11, with 11 being nearly impossible for even educated native speakers to pass. It actually might be a good tool for evaluating a top-notch world-class translator.

I took and passed Level 5 of the old HSK during my Sophomore year at school. There was a fairly ludicrous mix of easy and impossible questions. I’m not sad it’s forever gone.

The new HSK has a score system from 1 to 6. I’ve done practice tests at all levels, and found it to be an effectively crafted system for tracking a student’s progress from first semester Chinese all the way up to the point of being ready to enroll as a freshman in a Chinese-language university alongside native speakers.

Looking at the structure of the new HSK made me wonder if it’s designed to test the teachers, just as much as the students. Full-time students should be moving up a level every semester or two. If a swath of students isn’t moving up, that’s a major red flag that something in their schooling isn’t right.

In my case, my school watched the transition from old HSK to new HSK as I was moving up the ranks. When I was a Senior, the administration decided that an HSK 5 certificate was required for graduation.

I frankly thought this was a little silly. If you have gone to Chinese school in China for 4 years, and you can’t pass the HSK 6, then in my opinion you don’t deserve a diploma.

My first opportunity to take the new HSK exams was during my senior year. Just in case the HSK 6 didn’t go well, I also signed up for the HSK 5. I took the 5 first, and sure enough, found it to be way too easy. Then I took the 6.

Like Goldilocks, I had finally found the test that was “just right.”

Photo: People’s Square in Shanghai, China © 2006 Elijah Wilcott