Taking the Staatsexamens Nederlands als Tweede Taal
You’ve worked hard. U kunt wat Nederlands spreken. And you want a certificate to prove it. There are three possible official exams offered by DUO (Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs) in the Netherlands. The inburgering exam is the first exam and is on an A2 level. This exam tends to be taken by those who need to inburger in order to meet the language requirements of the inburgering process (as it’s the lowest level). The chances are that you’re going to be looking at one of the two Staatsexamens Nederlands als Tweede Taal. There’s “Programma I” at approximately a B1 level and “Programma II” at approximately a B2 level. This article is going to focus on information about these exams, and my advice and experience of taking the Staatsexamens Nederlands als Tweede Taal.
The exam is broken into the four language parts: Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking. You receive a diploma if you have passed all four, or a certificate for each part. You can take the exams for the four separate parts on two consecutive days, but you do not have to. You can spread the exams out. You can retake an exam that you have failed, but are limited to three attempts per year.
The first thing you’ll need to do is register for the exams you want to take. Registration costs €45 per exam part that you want to take and you can register to take the exams in one of five testing centers: Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Rijswijk, Rotterdam, and Zwolle. (I chose Rijswijk, so further information in this article might be slightly biased towards that). As you can see, you must be in the Netherlands to take the exam. You pay online using iDeal or you can ask for a letter to be sent to pay by bank transfer. In my experience, when paying with iDeal, you can choose exam dates approximately 3 weeks away.
Preparing for the exams is fairly self explanatory. Download the example exam papers and do them all. If you’re taking the B2 exams then don’t overlook the option of downloading the B1 papers and doing them in more detail too. Pay attention to what is said in the answers pdfs as they give a lot of information about what is expected of you. All of the example papers are relatively old and the timings, number of questions, etc varies slightly – but on the whole they’re very representative. You can buy more recent example papers, but in my opinion they aren’t worth it. I hold the same opinion about the myriad of NT2 exam preparation courses offered by commercial companies – this is something that you can easily prepare for yourself. You can mark your own answers to the reading and listening example papers. So really you just need someone who can mark the Writing and Speaking ones for you.
All four exam parts are done on the computer. For some you get a booklet as well to follow along (and to use to make notes), but all answers are on the computer. This includes speaking – it’s worth considering in your preparation that this feels fairly strange and you should mimic the exam as much as possible when you do the example papers to get used to it. i.e. talk into a computer, record yourself, and have some background noise.
Note: from that the exams are changing slightly in January 2018 and an online practice will be available from the end of October (presumably 2017). More here.
Test day is upon you, so how does it work? You’ll have received a letter from Duo confirming your exam(s) and with lots of instructions. It’s suggested that you turn up half an hour early – you should do at least that. In my experience with Rijswijk the test center was easy to find and easily reachable with public transport. When you arrive you should go to the reception desk to register. You will need your confirmation letter and a form of identification (i.e. passport). In rijswijk there were two queues, one for inburgering exams and one for staatsexamens. Join the right one! From here on in you’re speaking Dutch. Hand over your paperwork and you’ll get an explanation about the exams, what you can take in and what you can’t. You’ll also be given a locker key. The procedures here are quite strict, place everything that you are not taking into the exam into the locker. This includes obvious things like your bag and mobile phone, but don’t forget to put your watch in as well (you aren’t allowed a watch in the exam room. There are, however, plenty of clocks).
Take a seat. Up to ten minutes before the exam you and your fellow exam takers will be called into the exam room. Here you’ll find computers on desks, one of these will have a bit of paper with your name and candidate number on. Once everybody is seated the examiners will explain the procedure for the exam. They then walk around and check your ID again, check for contraband (e.g. watches!), and ask you to sign a registration sheet.
In the reading you get booklet with various texts, you answer questions about these on the computer. You can navigate back to answered questions and change your answers as long as you haven’t told the computer that you’ve finished on the last question. The texts are of various difficulties. You are allowed to take 3 dictionaries into the exam (Native Language to Dutch, Dutch to Native Language, Dutch). They must be proper paper editions (not electronic) and unmarked (no notes). You can take any dictionary except: Het Van Dale Synoniemenwoordenboek en het Van Dale Spreekwoordenboek. It makes sense to take in your full compliment of dictionaries, but practice using them beforehand and use them sparingly in the exam. Time is limited and using dictionaries takes a lot of time. The questions are all multiple choice, so in my opinion it is better to guess an answer than to consult the dictionary. A lot of the time your guess is correct. If you keep a list of the questions you’ve guessed then you can go back and look them up in the dictionary if you have time left over at the end of the exam. Learn to skim read and then dig in later for more detail.
The listening exam consists of listening to people speaking on headphones and then answering a multiple choice question on the computer. You read the question, hear the conversation just once, and then get time to answer. Listening carefully. In my opinion, after listening you either know the answer or not. The hardest part is psychological – if you don’t know the answer then you should just guess, move on, and concentrate on the rest of the test. When I sat the exam the time given to answer each question was fixed, everyone proceeded at the same rate, and there was a short break halfway through. The time given to answer each question was too long, so you spend a lot of the time just waiting. Apparently from 2018 this is changing so that you can choose when to carry on with the next question. Lucky people!
You do the writing on the computer (so it obviously helps if you can type well!). This mostly consisted of finishing sentences, writing sentences or a few paragraphs. The questions very clearly explain what you are expected to write. My advice here would be to follow what the question asks exactly. You need to show that you have an appropriate level of word and grammar usage, but don’t try and be too clever. It is better to write things in a way you’re sure about.
In my opinion this is the weirdest test. You will be presented with a question and then required to say something. This can be anything from role playing a situation to describing something. Depending on the test and the question you get varying amounts of preparation time. On the beep you then speak the answer into the computer, that records what you’re saying. Everybody else in the exam room does this in parallel, so you’ll need to mentally block out the background noise and concentrate on your own answer. It’s good if you’ve practised this at home first. I made a lot of use of the paper to make notes in the time you get to prepare questions. Like the writing exam, be sure to answer exactly what they have asked for. Don’t be tempted to under or over talk.
Once your exam is over, the examiners will explain that after 5 weeks you can get the results on the website. In my experience these were always available shortly before midday on the tuesday exactly 5 weeks after the exam. A pass mark is a score of above 500. You will not get told which questions you got wrong and the score is relative to the difficulty of the test, so you never really know how well you’ve done. Just be happy if you’ve passed and prepare for a retake if not.
If you passed all four parts in one session (over the two days) then you will get a diploma in the post shortly after. If you passed or only took some of the exams then you will get a certificate for each part that you took. You can then sit the exams for the other certificates (possibly again) and when you have the set of 4 you can send them off by post to exchange them for a diploma.