Lessons from China's GAOKAO

If you think high stakes student testing is out of control in the U.S... hold on to your #2 pencil, because there’s a whole new level of crazy...

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If you think high stakes student testing is out of control in the U.S… hold on to your #2 pencil, because there’s a whole new level of crazy we haven’t gotten to yet.

The Chinese gaokao, more formally known as The National Higher Education Entrance Examination, is a “make or break” test for high school students. It not only determines if they will be allowed to go on to college, but also seals the deal on which colleges they may attend. This is the test that determines futures. This is the sole means by which students are evaluated for college admission.

High stakes testing mixed with human nature is bound to lead to cheating. According to this article from BBC News, Chinese testing security measures include closed-circuit television, metal detectors, and tracking the delivery of exam materials via GPS.  However, this year, officials in Luoyang City, located in central China, upped the ante by using drones to detect cheaters. The Washington Post reports that students cheat by using a pen that can snap photos of test questions and send them to an accomplice who then transmits the correct answers via an earpiece. The drones or “unmanned aerial vehicles” can pick up the signals and report the cheating activity to test proctors.

Educational reformers blame rampant cheating on the importance placed on this one single test. The Christian Science Monitor quotes Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research institute, as saying, “The real problem is that the government is still hesitant to give up its power over the education system, from school operations to exams and enrollment.” Bingqi adds, “If colleges can’t establish their own applicant evaluation system based on their needs, in which student’s high school credits, graduation exam scores, and enrollment interview performance are all taken into consideration, the goodwill of the current reform plans will not matter.”

Too many parts of China’s educational system are chillingly similar to the current educational climate in the United States. There is an increased push for student promotion and graduation, teacher salaries, and school funding to hinge on the results of standardized testing. Educators caught up in the Atlanta cheating scandal are doing prison time, providing an extreme example of the consequences of testing pressure.

As of now, students in the United States have a variety of colleges and universities to choose from. College admissions staff looks at the student as a whole person, taking various factors into consideration. This is the system that Chinese reformers long to move toward. And this is the system that we must fight to preserve.





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  1. Komal Reply

    I stumbled upon your post lonokig for info on teaching in China, and I must say I enjoyed your fresh introspective take on ESL in China. The main reason being it reminds me so much of the situation where I come from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.PR is a Spanish-speaking country, but since 1898, it’s been a territorial possession of the United States. Nowadays, Puerto Ricans enjoy a quality of life well above it’s neighbors in the Carribean thanks in part to it’s connection to and incorporation of the American business model, however, this is still very much a different country, with it’s own rules and customs.Something you hear a lot when people talk about the island is the catch phrase, Everybody speaks English. , this is NOT the case. While English is heard and observed in many places, and in fact taught in primary school, secondary school, as well as college, and Spanglish is a new dominant force in slang, the truth is the majority of island native Puerto Ricans speak next to no English. The official stat is 17% fluency in English (which I think is lower than in actuality, but I won’t get into that)What got me about your article was that idea that learning English could be potential beneficial, the fact was, that potential was rarely needed in everyday Chinese society, and most people didn’t even really seem to care. That is so Puerto Rico! However, English pops up as an important skill here a lot more than China, I would assume, as we are US citizens and contact with the Federal government is a constant part of life. Still, people just want to speak the language they know already, speak better, and use of which is just more vital in their society. While knowing English here in PR can always benefit you, knowing it and living here doesn’t have as much value (unless you hang out with the middle-class American-esque Nerd crowd, like me!)This article and my personal experience leads me to a couple of conclusions about the Teaching of English Abroad; 1. We native English-speakers (I’m originally from Pittsburgh) have a somewhat deluded opinion of how important our language is to the world. In the states, we learn second languages for fun and the general benefit they will give us, but other countries learn a second language, and always a specific one, because of the direct benefit they will give them. 2. English is not so much a Second-language around the world, but an Auxiliary-language, to be used as a task-specific communications tool like in marketing or academics, rather than an actual additional tongue. Somewhat like how French and Latin were in medieval Europe among nobles and clergy, and Greek was long before that.I was wondering how this realization effects someone who is teaching abroad. Is there a balance point between teaching English as a language in it’s entirety, and teaching them the parts of the language they have a use for?