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What are high, really high, test scores worth: Competition among Schools in China

19 June 2010 15,593 7 Comments

If you are good at taking tests, you can be rewarded handsomely. Not only will you get into to the most prestigious and competitive high school, for free, while your peers who cannot get as a good score pay tens of thousands of RMB to study there (but they still have to be good enough), you will also receive an additional signing bonus of thousands of RMB in cash. In addition, the school will provide your parents an air-conditioned apartment near the school free of charge so they can be close to you. If that is not sufficient, the school will even offer your parents jobs should they have the need.

These are some of the incentives high schools in China’s Wuhan city offer to lure the top scoring graduating middle school students, according to a story published in the China Education Paper on June 14, 2010 (the story is in Chinese). But using monetary and other types of incentives to attract top scoring students is not limited to Wuhan. It has become a national phenomenon. It has earned its own name: qiajian or skim the top in English. There is even a novel about the phenomenon published in 2007.

Qiajian happens at all levels of schooling. Middle schools try to get the best scoring students from elementary, high schools the best from middle, and colleges the best from high schools.

On the surface, this does not seem to be anything wrong or usual for schools to try to attract the best students. Some, especially those outside the Chinese system, may even applaud, thinking this means that the Chinese truly valuing education. Colleges worldwide give scholarships to worthy candidates and some private schools in the U.S. have similar practices. It is simply meritocracy.

But upon closer examination, this practice is of great concern in China and should sound alarm to those who are pushing for school competition, high stakes testing, and accountability based on student performance, i.e. test scores.

First, the motivation behind the practice is troublesome. These top scoring students, a very small percentage of the total student body, are simply advertisement. Schools bet on that they will continue to score well enough to go on to prestigious universities. And when they do, the school can claim to be of great quality and attract more students and income. Chinese schools, although most of them are theoretically government run and public, are in reality run as businesses. They compete for students (so parents can pay school selection fees or make “donations”) and recognition of the government (so the school leaders may be promoted and staff may be given bonuses and school get more resources).

Second, the selection criterion is only test scores in a number of limited subjects (Chinese, Math, and English in most cases). Nothing else counts. As a result, all students are driven to study for the tests. As I have written elsewhere, particularly in my book Catching Up or Leading the Way, such a test-driven education system has become China’s biggest obstacle to its dream of moving away from cheap-labor-based economy to an economy fueled by innovation and creativity. The government has been struggling, through many rounds of reforms, to move away from testing and test scores, but it has achieved very little because the test scores have been accepted as the gold standard of objectivity and fairness for assessing quality of education and students (as much as everyone hates it).

Third, the practice exacerbates the already huge inequality among schools. Only schools that are already well-endowed can put up more attractive incentives to students. And these schools take the best students away from those already suffering from a lack of resources. While the good schools get better, the others get worse—a perfect case of the Matthew Effect: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).

Finally, qiajian puts tremendous pressure on students, resulting in significant psychological and emotional stress. Imagine yourself as a 6th grader from poor rural village—how well you do one exam could mean bankrupt your family or lift your family out of poverty, give your parents a job in the city, and the promise of going to a great college.


One of the popular strategies in the current education reform in the United States is to stimulate more competition through charter schools. I was wondering what would happen if charter schools began to skim the top of the student pool from public schools in order to boost their performance. For this matter, once we get into a full market-driven education system, all schools began to adopt the practice?

The accountability movement in the US is also becoming more ridiculous. Increasingly we are saying student performance, i.e. test scores in two three subjects, have begun to affect the livelihood and social reputation of individual teachers, school administrators, and a community. Will there be similar practices in American schools? Will schools and teachers begin to pick and choose who they want to teach and who will teach those who do not score well?

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  • Jesse Turner said:

    Thank you for another insightful blog Dr. Zhao. Competition in our public schools will leave many behind. My view is Hartford Connecticut Magnet schools and charter Schools are already cherry picking students here in Hartford Connecticut.
    Applications can only be accessed online, are complicated, and often require parent commitments as well. I did a status on adult literacy in Hartford a few years ago for a community action group. I found that nearly half of the adult population in Hartford were at levels 1 & 2, (Level 1, not able to read a children’s book) & (Level 2, have trouble completing a basic employment application). In my humble opinion placing the choice school applications on-line is cherry picking students in a cities like Hartford with a population like this.

    I do have a question I have about China is how many students actually go to high school? During my visit to China I was told compulsory education was from grades 1 to 9, but this is changing. It was hard to find a real percentage for secondary students?

  • Mark Horney said:

    I wonder if there is any data from the Magnet Schools movement from some years ago that give insight into these issues.

  • tim comfort said:

    I teach in a community school in Saskatoon, Canada and I am amazed at the differences between these schools and the more affluent ones my kids go to. My nephews go to private school in another province. People are indifferent to the plight of public education and ar mainly concerned with their own self-interest. The educated get more educated and the rich get richer. sounds like it is not so differnt in China.

  • Brendan Murphy said:

    This seems to contradict this recent article from Newsweek

    Are Chinese schools moving to PBL or are they trending towards testing?

  • James Thrush said:

    Dr. Zhao,
    This is the first article/blog I have had the chance to read, however I plan on reading all that you have researched and written. At least as long as my VPN keeps working, since this site is blocked by China’s censors. I have been an EFL teacher here in China for three years now and though I love the country and the kids, I am very disappointed in the education system and what it is doing to these kids. They are not truly prepared to go forward in the 21st century. They work/study 12/14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week but are just not learning much at all – memorizing a lot of information for sure, but in my experience after the exam it is long forgotten until it’s time to study for the next exam. How I long to change this and to actually engage students to not only truly learn and understand the information spoon fed to them via a chalk board, poor textbooks, and an under trained teacher sometimes with little knowledge themselves of the subject they are teaching. I’m determined to make a difference here but I need much help (I’ll leave out the support needed to keep fighting a big uphill battle as a “Laowei” – Even teaching in the private sector with organizations that call themselves “western” and innovative, I found that they only continue to reinvent the same wheel being used in the public schools – their true desires are profit not student ability. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to overcome this problem is to run my own classes and show physical proof of having students who are engaged in their learning and actually enjoy learning with a strong to desire to continue long into their future. Wow what a goal!! A pipedream some may say. Well Dr. can you help me in any way to help your fellow countryman?

  • Yvonne Siu-Runyan said:

    Dr. Zhao,

    Thank you for your persistence in showing how ridiculous the way the United States is going re: education.

  • Yvonne Siu-Runyan said:

    Dr. Zhao, you should be Secretary of Education. Thank you, thank you. I love your work.

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