Blog: The Educated Reporter

For Chinese Students, One Test Is Everything

 I was riveted this weekend by the New York Times Magazine’s glimpse Inside a Chinese Test-Prep Factory.  Journalist Brook Larmer paints a vivid picture of what can happen when a single assessment determines a young person’s entire future. 

The gaokao exam requires intensive rote memorization, and students across the country invest untold hours over many years getting ready. The cram factory featured in the magazine has 20,000 students, many of whom are drawn from poor, rural provinces and whose families endure enormous hardships to finance their educations. There’s even a separate wing set aside for students who have failed the test and are trying again. Indeed, they’re one of the school’s biggest moneymakers. 

For the Chinese student profiled in the story, there seemed to be only two routes for him and his peers from China’s poorest rural communities: Either win a spot in one of the country’s universities or face dismal prospects as manual laborers. 

And the pressure is enormous for the cram factory’s teachers, as well. Salaries at the school are twice what a traditional Chinese high school would pay, and teachers earn bonuses if their students score well enough to qualify for a top-tier university. But teachers know their jobs hinge on their students’ scores. The work is grueling: 17-hour days supervising classes as large as 170 students. From the magazine:

With the groundswell of pushback against perceived over-testing of American students, the magazine piece is a valuable contrast in extremes. It’s also a good reminder that testing data on its own is just numbers. Without context, and an understanding of students’ daily lives and classroom experiences, tests won’t tell the story.

From the magazine:

Besides rapping knuckles with rulers, students told me, some teachers pit them against one another in practice-test “death matches” — the losers must remain standing all morning. In one much-discussed case, the mother of a tardy student was forced to stand outside her son’s class for a week as punishment. For the repeat students, the teachers have a merciless mantra: “Always remember your failure!”

For more on these issues, we have a guest post from our recent seminar at Stanford University on covering assessments: The Limits of Testing – Getting Beyond the Standard(ized) Story. Shanghai’s success on international assessments has also been a focus of intense scrutiny, and we took a look at a Brookings Institution report on that topic last year. 


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