Last year – yeah, I know, it feels like only some days ago – I posted a good read from the Washington Post on the tutoring industry in North Korea. The New York Times has posted their own story on this topic, focusing on China. And it’s a sad story of the effect of standardized tests called the gaokao.
The exam — there are two versions, one focused on science, the other on humanities — is the modern incarnation of the imperial keju, generally regarded as the world’s first standardized test. For more than 1,300 years, into the early 20th century, the keju funneled young men into China’s civil service. Today, more than nine million students take the gaokao each year.
But what are the effects?
China’s treadmill of standardized tests has produced, along with high levels of literacy and government control, some of the world’s most scarily proficient test-takers. Shanghai high-school students have dominated the last two cycles of the Program for International Student Assessment exam, leading more than one U.S. official to connect this to a broader “Sputnik moment” of coming Chinese superiority. Yet even as American educators try to divine the secret of China’s test-taking prowess, the gaokao is coming under fire in China as an anachronism that stifles innovative thought and puts excessive pressure on students. Teenage suicide rates tend to rise as the gaokao nears. Two years ago, a student posted a shocking photograph online: a public high-school classroom full of students hunched over books, all hooked up to intravenous drips to give them the strength to keep studying.
Beijing is now pushing reforms to reduce student workloads, expand the curriculum beyond core courses and allow universities to consider factors other than gaokao scores. Yet the government efforts have received token compliance from an entrenched bureaucracy and outright resistance from many parents who fear that easing the pressure could hurt their children’s exam results and jeopardize their futures. “China is caught in a prisoner’s dilemma,” says Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon and the author of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” “Nobody is willing to break away, because the gaokao is still the only path to heaven.”
(read the whole story here)