HSK level equivalency

Many Chinese immersion schools test students’ Chinese proficiency with Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK or 汉语水平考试), which is China’s only standardized test for non-native speakers such as foreign students and oversea Chinese.

Parents may wonder what HSK level means in terms of proficiency and its equivalency to other scale, such as Interagency Language Roundtable scale (ILR), used by United States’ Federal-level service, or CEFR, a guideline used across Europe, or ACTFL, created by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

According to Wikipedia entry on HSK:

HSK 1 = 174 characters = CEFR* Below A1

HSK 2 = 347 characters = CEFR* A1 = ILR 0/0+ = ACTFL Novice

HSK 3 = 617 characters = CEFR* A1/A1-A2 = ILR 0-1 = ACTFL Novice-Intermediate

HSK 4 = 1064 characters = CEFR* A2 = ILR level 1 = ACTFL Intermediate

HSK 5 = 1685 characters = CEFR* B1 = ILR level 1+ = ACTFL Advanced low

HSK 6 = 2663 characters = CEFR* B2/B2-C1 = ILR 2/2+ to 3/3+ = ACTFL Advance Mid-High

Personally, I like the general descriptive explanation used by ILR scale, which can be found here: Wikipedia & Interagency Language Roundtable.  The ILR levels are as follows:

ILR level 0:  no proficiency

ILR level 1 = elementary profiency

ILR level 2: limited working proficiency

ILR level 3: “working” or “general” professional proficiency.

ILR level 4: full or advanced professional proficiency

ILR level 5: functionally native proficiency

From prior research of Taiwan and mainland China literature, I note that by end of second grade, students from China/Taiwan are taught a total of 1600/800 characters (though students from Taiwan on average knows about 1200 characters).  By end of fourth grade, students from China/Taiwan are taught a total of 2500/1600 characters (though students from Taiwan on average knows about 2600 characters).

Therefore, in terms of characters that students are taught or know, I draw the following conclusion:

HSK 3 ~ first semester first grade in China/second semester first grade in Taiwan

HSK 4 ~ second semester first grade in China/first semester second grade in Taiwan

HSK 5 ~ second semester second grade in China/first semester third grade in Taiwan

HSK 6 ~ second semester fourth grade in China/Taiwan

But of course, characters don’t equate to words, which are typically combination of characters.  It also says nothing of fluency and content knowledge.

In terms of Chinese AP test, a brief internet search suggests that it is HSK level 4.  Based on the study guide we are using, I would say the language used is closer to third/fourth grade level in Taiwan, which would place it at HSK level 5 at least. In any case, let’s just say it is HSK level 4-5. However, that’s just the language level, not the content level.  There are lots of Chinese cultural knowledge and adult real-life language usage that the students have to learn and know to do well on the Chinese AP test. Therefore, I suggest not taking the AP test at least till 10th grade.

Going back to Chinese immersion school, a few parents mentioned that their 5th, 8th, or X graders passed HSK level 3.  Parents can be the judge of whether achieving HSK level 3 (617 characters = CEFR* A1/A1-A2 = ILR 0-1 = ACTFL Novice-Intermediate = first semester first grade in China/second semester first grade in Taiwan) after X years of Chinese immersion school is desirable.  I am sure family of different background and situation will view this differently.

I hope this helps.

*Per German/French association of Chinese Language teachers respectively.  Hanban estimates place each HSK level two CEFR levels higher.  For example, Hanban estimates HSK 2 to be CEFR A2 but the German/French association of Chinese language teachers thinks HSK 2 is CEFR A1 only and it takes HSK 4 to be CEFR A2.  I myself lean toward the more independent opinion of German/French Chinese language teachers.

**American University Center of Provence

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