2.1. Gifted and Talented and English as a Foreign Language Education in China
There are some unique social and cultural factors in the Chinese educational context that are reflected in GT education. First, Chinese culture places an extremely high value on education [9
]. Students have no option but to perform well on the Zhongkao
(entrance examination for high school) and in the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) to be accepted into a well-known high school or top university [10
]. It is worth noting that EFL is a required subject for both the Zhongkao and the NCEE, and carries the same weight in the scoring as other core courses, such as Chinese language arts and mathematics. Second, Chinese people have been greatly influenced by the ideology of collectivism, in which individuals should follow the expectation of his/her family and community [11
], which leads to the phenomenon that a student’s academic achievement represents the glory (mianzi
or “face” in Chinese culture) of his/her family [12
]. Therefore, in Chinese culture, talented students are always associated with high social status, reputation, and prestige; their family has an even higher expectation of their academic success [9
]. Third, Chinese general beliefs hold that GT is related to creativity in science, but barely so in liberal arts, which was reported in a few empirical [11
]. For example, Zhang [13
] emphasized that Chinese culture attributes “meritorious salience” to the value of high achievement, while western culture places more value on “aesthetic salience”, which results in GT-related research in China focusing on science-related disciplines instead of art or art-related subjects.
As was mentioned earlier, EFL is a required subject in the two most critical exams, the Zhongkao and the NCEE, for the students who intend to attend colleges and universities, and is the dominant foreign language education in China [1
]. College English (CE) was established for undergraduate science majors in 1985 and for liberal art majors in 1986 [16
]. Since then, CE has been designed as a two-year compulsory course for all non-English majors [15
]. Moreover, the College English Test Band Four (CET-4) is the only nationwide standardized test for non-English major students at the university level [18
], and many universities require students to pass this test as a prerequisite for obtaining a bachelor’s degree [15
]. Based on Rao and Lei’s [19
] analysis, college students take an average of 300 h of CE classroom instruction, which is equivalent to 16 credit hours to fulfill the bachelor’s degree. However, concerns have been raised regarding the extensive amount of instructional time with less challenging content that has failed to meet students’ needs [19
] and made them less motivated [20
], which led to a heated discussion of instructional hour reduction [15
]. On the other hand, a more in-depth analysis showed that more than 90% of non-English major students passed the CET-4 in the first two years of college/university when CE was offered as a compulsory course; however, less than 10% scored 77% and above to be eligible to take CET-4 Oral Exam, a more advanced English proficiency sub-exam of CET-4 [15
]. Tao also pointed out that many college students do not feel confident expressing their thoughts orally, due to limited English proficiency.
There are students who have demonstrated a higher level of English language proficiency and talents in expressing themselves in English, and they are exposed to great opportunities for receiving small-group training for speech competitions (e.g., the China Daily Cup, the CCTV Cup, and the 21st Century Cup) or advanced English public speaking courses limited to select students with highly advanced English language proficiency [15
]. We only identified two studies that investigated the impact of this type of special course/training on students’ self-efficacy (i.e., [23
]) or self-reflection on their progress in English language proficiency (i.e., [22
]). However, there is no existing empirical study reporting the effectiveness of this small-group training/advanced course on the ET students’ English language proficiency, not to mention the methods to evaluate such effectiveness.
2.2. Evaluation Design Approach and Propensity Score Matching
As suggested by Yuen et al. [24
], GT students spend less time practicing basic skills and benefit greatly from curriculum acceleration and higher-order thinking tasks. It is crucial to provide GT students with a learning environment where they can personalize and take ownership of their learning [25
]. Because it is challenging for teachers to create equal opportunities for students with different levels of abilities in the same class [24
], modifications of curriculum content and instruction or differentiated instruction for GT students are recommended [26
]. However, the effectiveness of GT services remains to be established, due to the lack of rigorous research design (e.g., random assignment) to control for selection bias [30
A randomized controlled trial (RCT), as the most powerful research design, can best detect the intervention effect on students, and is considered the gold standard for social, psychological, and education research [31
]. Via randomization, students in the treatment and control conditions can be equivalent for both observed and unobserved background characteristics, thereby generating a relatively unbiased estimate of the impact of the program (i.e., GT services) on students’ achievement. However, it is not always realistic to randomly assign students to different programs—for example, students who qualify for GT services would all receive that service. An alternative approach to reducing selection bias and establishing comparability between conditions is the propensity score matching (PSM) technique [30
]. A propensity score was proposed by Rosenbaun and Rubin [33
] as a rigorous estimation of causal effect from observational data, and the matching technique uses propensity scores to correct for selection bias in nonexperimental/RCT studies, in which researchers can generate a “control” group that shares similar characteristics with a “treatment’ group. As was suggested by Hong and Raudenbush [34
], as well as Shadish et al. [35
], the proper use of PSM allows for a rigorously derived and relatively unbiased estimation of the treatment’s effect, which can approximate the findings obtained from RCT design [36
]. Because of its ability to greatly reduce selection bias, PSM has started to catch researchers’ attention in the fields of education [30
]. Take GT program for example, via PSM procedure, researchers can select a group of “control” students who share observed characteristics as the GT students, such as gender, learning experience, prior academic achievement, etc.
The purpose of this study is to demonstrate a practical yet rigorous statistical method to evaluate the effectiveness of the ET program. We used an example of 36 students from an ET program at a tier-1 university (University H) in China. These students were selected based on their scores (top 5%) on the English exam in the NCEE, as well as their performance in the ET qualification test held by University H. We demonstrated a step-by-step guide of PSM techniques in the R statistical package to select a comparable non-ET group for comparison. Via PSM procedure, we were able to match 36 ET students with another 36 students who demonstrated similar characteristics but did not receive the same ET services. We estimated the impact of ET education services on the ET students’ English language proficiency measured by the CET-4, compared to non-ET students. Our demonstration can guide researchers and practitioners in establishing an equivalent comparison group through a rigorous matching mechanism when randomization is not available due to realistic constraints. Such an approach has broader applicability to other program types as well. The use of a large sample of Chinese university students also informs researchers, practitioners, and administrators on the magnitude of ET education effects on university students’ English language learning.