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Don’t Romanticize Testing in China

14 September 2010 13,520 5 Comments

Don’t Romanticize Testing in China

A number of people alerted me to an article in the New York Times entitled “Testing, the Chinese Way.” The article suggests more testing for American students based on the author’s over-generalized and romanticized experience with her children’s testing experience in a Western school that happens to be located in China.

In fact, I am not opposed to the types of “tests” or formative assessment the author describes: “the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge.” I am puzzled by the author’s reference to testing in China as evidence to justify her proposal because many American teachers already do so in their classes. My own children who have attended schools in the U.S. have certainly had such experiences in the forms of homework and in-class quizzes from first grade on.  And I myself often play “testing” games with my children by challenging them with spelling, quick mental math problems, or finding the capitals of a country, all in a fun way.  There is no need to evoke China as the example.

A bigger problem with this article is that the author, intentionally or unintentionally, may lead people to believe American schools need more standardized, high-stakes testing that conform to single standards and are used to evaluate schools and teachers—the true intention of the Race to the Top program the author cited.

So I wanted to point out a few things in the article:

  1. The testing experience of the author’s children is not “the Chinese way.” The school they attended, International School of Beijing, is not a Chinese school in any sense. It only accepts non-Chinese citizens (mainly expats). Its admissions policy states: “the School intends to enroll qualified students who hold a foreign passport and have at least one parent holding a foreign passport.” Students in this school do not experience what real Chinese students experience in a Chinese school.
  2. The Chinese way of testing carries much higher stake for students, parents, and teachers. The pressure of testing for Chinese students begins even before kindergarten and has been well documented (the whole Chapter 4 of my book describes this in detail). And the Chinese government and education sector have been working very hard to reform this test-oriented education for decades.
  3. Like many outside observers, the author has a romanticized view of testing in China. By saying “[i]n Asia, such a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking,” and that Asian parents wanted “still more tests an homework,  she mistakes a forced action out of despair for an action that is loved voluntarily. Ask any Chinese parents, teachers, or government officials in education, they will tell you that there is too much testing and it is far from normal. They will also tell you how children are stressed by exams. At the same time, they will tell you “mei banfa” (meaning they have no other choice but to force the children to partake in the testing system). Those who can afford it send their children to Western style schools in China or outside the country.
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  • Jesse said:

    Thank you for another well written response Dr.Zhao. Elisabeth Rosenthal may be a medical doctor and journalist, but she is not a teacher or someone who has spent time working in the classroom. Sadly only in American education does the public allow people with little or no actual experience to present themselves as experts.

  • Juanjuan Zhao said:

    Hi Dr.Zhao,thank you for you post.It’s interesting to see one country’s pain becoming another country’s role model.I kind of feel the ‘romantizing of testing’ when reading the part about NCLB in your book ‘Catching Up or Leading the Way’.I am also thinking how much Chinese has misinterpreted ideas,systems,models,etc. from other countries.If there are people who aware of this and has an expertise to clarify them earlier on,probably we can avoid a lot of tragedies…

  • Gordon Choi said:

    Yong, you have made your points and you are exactly right about 1, 2 and 3.

  • Yvonne Siu-Runyan said:

    Perfectly said.

  • Yvonne Siu-Runyan said:

    Juanjuan’s comment is true: “It’s interesting to see one country’s pain [high stakes testing in China] becoming another country’s [United States] role model.

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