Change without Difference: China’s Struggle with Standardized Testing
China’s Peking University (or Beida) has been under fire for trying to answer the nation’s call for more innovative and creative talents. In an attempt to attract more “unusual or extraordinary students” who may not do well on standardized testing, in this case, China’s infamous Gaokao (College Entrance Exam), Beida, one of the two most sought-after universities, decided to admit a very small number of (less than 3%) students based on recommendations of high school principals. Although these recommended students would still take the College Entrance Exam and go through face-to-face interviews with the University’s admissions team, the recommendation and a successful interview will add 30 points to their final score on the Entrance Exam, giving them a huge advantage over other applicants. And the recommended students do not need to pass a written exam to be interviewed.
Last week, Beida (some call it the Harvard of China) announced that it has granted principals of 39 high schools the privilege to recommend students. The announcement on November 16 sparked a national uproar in China. Both traditional media and online discussions have been following the story with great intensity. So far the reactions have been largely negative. Most are opposed to Beida’s action. Some question why and how the 39 schools were selected: do “unusual talents” only attend these 39 schools? What about the many other high schools? Some question how the 39 principals will actually decide whom to recommend. Some question if this will lead to more corruption, accusing Beida is offering these principals the opportunity to take bribes.
The opposition is mainly fueled by the concern about the fairness and validity of the criteria Beida used to select the 39 high schools and the criteria by which the selected schools will use to decide whom to recommend. In a country where standardized test scores have been used as the only selection criterion for centuries, as I have written about in my book’s chapter 4, it is almost impossible to imagine that any other measure would be as fair and valid. Thus despite the government’s determination and persistence, China’s many reform efforts have not been able to break away from the test-oriented tradition.
Beida has not backed off and it is unlikely that it will. As a university under the direct administration of China’s Ministry of Education, Beida has to act within the policy framework of the Ministry. Thus Beida’s action can be viewed as a sign of China’s continued serious effort to move away from standardized testing.
But this action, like its many predecessors, is unlikely to have any real impact. Some of the 39 schools have already put up their recommended students and openly discussed how they were selected. No surprise: test scores. The schools based their recommendation on rankings of the students according to several rounds of recent tests that are closely aligned with the Gaokao. In other words, these recommended students are great test-takers and can score high enough to get into Beida anyway.
“It is not because we cannot, but we dare not [to use other measures],” one of the principals said. “We certainly have many excellent students. I really wanted to recommend those whose test scores are not so high but with exceptional talents. But dare Beida to really admit them? If it did, would other students and parents accept it?” After some serious thinking, the principal decided that scores are the most convincing measure that is accepted by the public.
Two lessons for America:
- China is determined to reform its education to cultivate a diversity of talents and creativity. China has recognized and suffered from the damaging effects of standardized testing and has been trying very hard to move away from standards. If America or any other nation wants to worry about China, it is its determination and focus on creativity and talents, not its test scores.
- Once standardized test scores become an accepted way to judge the potential and value of a child, the performance of a teacher, and the quality of school, it is very difficult to change. We are already seeing signs of this in the U.S., thanks to all the education reformers who want to make Americans “globally competitive.”
News reports about this in Chinese can be found here: