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The Value of a College Degree: High Test Scores, Low Ability

4 December 2010 43,580 6 Comments

The value of Chinese college degree: $44 per month according recent statistics. “China’s college graduates on average make only 300 yuan, or roughly $44, more per month than the average Chinese migrant worker,” writes a Wall Street Journal blog article citing data released by the director of Institute of Population and Labor Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Coincidentally, another story (in Chinese) that is spreading in Chinese media and online space is that a post-graduate degree (masters) is worth less than what a nanny makes.

It is no news that Chinese college graduates have a difficult time finding employment in one of the world’s fastest growing economy. Each year, about one third of China’s 6 million college graduates cannot find a job. Many of them decide to pursue higher degrees to delay the pressure and extend their hopes. But now it looks like higher degree holders are facing the same situation.

There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the testing-oriented education, as I wrote in an invited commentary to the story by New York Times (below). This should serve as a warning for the American education reformers who are pushing hard for using test scores as THE measure of education in the United States.

How Test Scores, Low Ability (published in NY Times Room for Debate on December 3, 2010)

There’s a frustrating paradox in Chinese education. On the one hand, millions of college graduates cannot find a job — at least a desirable job that pays substantially more than what a migrant worker makes. On the other hand, businesses that want to pay a lot more can’t seem to find qualified employees.

Multinational companies in China are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates for their positions. According to a recent survey of U.S.-owned enterprises conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, 37 percent of the companies that responded said that finding talent was their biggest operational problem. A separate study by McKinsey Quarterly found that 44 percent of the executives in Chinese companies reported that insufficient talent was the biggest barrier to their global ambitions.

The explanation: a test-oriented educational environment.

China invented the keju system, which used tests to select government officials. It was a great invention because it enabled talents from across the society to join the ruling class regardless of their family backgrounds. Hence, a great meritocracy could be created. But it evolved into a nightmare for China as the system gradually changed into one that tested memorization of Confucian classics.

Keju is dead now but its spirit is very alive in China today, in the form of gaokao, or the College Entrance Exam. It’s the only exam that matters since it determines whether students can attend college and what kind of colleges they can attend. Because of its life-determining nature, gaokao has become the “baton” that conducts the whole education orchestra. Students, parents, teachers, school leaders and even local government officials all work together to get good scores. From a very young age, children are relieved of any other burden or deprived of opportunity to do anything else so they can focus on getting good scores.

The result is that Chinese college graduates often have high scores but low ability. Those who are good at taking tests go to college, which also emphasizes book knowledge. But when they graduate, they find out that employers actually want much more than test scores. That is why another study by McKinsey found that fewer than 10 percent of Chinese college graduates would be suitable for work in foreign companies.

Chinese educators are well aware of the problems with the gaokao system and have been trying to move away from the excessive focus on testing. But seeking other valid indicators of strong academic records will take time, especially in a country of 1.3 billion people.

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  • Gordon Choi said:

    The problems have been caused by a couple of reasons, but mostly because China is a country that has been trying “too hard” to catch up with all the 1st world countries. China had no other choice but had to rely on “short cuts”. My few points:

    1. The Chinese educational system really sucks…
    2. To adapt to the system, students are forced to take “short cuts” (learn how to beat the tests, instead of taking time to “learn” the academic subjects), e.g. people who got high marks in English language test, can’t even write a correct English sentence.
    3. Unfortunately, students are forced not to spend all their available preparing for all the exams and gaokao, which left them no time to develop any other useful skills (e.g. social skills / problem solving skills). Not to mention most students who do not even understand any foreigners’ cultures and therefore cannot adapt to the work/social life in foreign invested companies in China.
    4. The one-child policy makes the problem worse…
    5. When I do interviews with applicants to figure out who would be suitable for the vacancies, I can’t evaluate any applicants’ work ability based on any of their academic results.

  • F H Monberg said:

    As a high school counselor and test giver for the past 47 years and dealing with Indiana’s insane testing program called ISTEP, I’ll tell you that the only thing that matters in determining test scores is family wealth. Refuse poor children the chance to take the tests and the average test scores will rocket to the top of the world, After all most countries cut out the poor at early ages and they never have the chance to take high school tests, the USA COUNTS ALL KIDS, EVEN “SPECIAL ED” KIDS!

  • Bill Peterson said:

    Your ideas are a breath of fresh air in connection with the educational reforms now being proposed in the U.S. In my view in any country, choosing the wrong educational goals is a basic problem. I would suggest that the primary goals of education should be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and these goals should be pursued, not for some future benefit, but in support of the present moment in each student’s life. Other secondary goals such as economic well being, a future career, or developing a technical workforce may flow from these primary goals, but the substitution of any of these secondary goals as primary is a step towards a distorted or Orwellian future. I also find it difficult to envision the educational goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness except as a creativity endeavor, and in such an endeavor concepts such as excessive competition, aggressive testing, merit pay, and business models have little meaning.

  • John Benson said:

    I have taught as an instructor at an international school managed by Chinese, and and subsequently at four post secondary universities or colleges. I noticed that absentee rates were high at certain times of the year when students took external tests to rate their business or English knowledge. I assume these are government or for-profit agencies that are testing whether the teachers are doing their jobs. The other aspect is the reliance on memory and recitation of the textbook content. Chinese students have great memory capability. Their educational taxonomy seems to be stuck on Bloom’s first two levels. In the film course that I teach, after a two semester writing course the previous year, I do see results. However, some students have been taking a shortcut by purchasing the teacher’s guide with the answers to the “Questions for Thought” in the student’s text. Not every student avails him/herself of this shortcut. When I devise an essay topic using large ideas that encompass three films, I have witnessed some good progress in development of their thinking capacity. There are sets of subskills that must be taught first to achieve these results or they produce generalized nonsense in their commentary. Problem-solving is jettisoned in favor of content coverage in curriculum by most teachers under pressure. When coverage is the objective, understanding suffers. When I ask a student what a word means, she looks at her mates. But if I place that question in a multiple choice format, the Chinese student will ace it every time.

  • Common Core, China, and the Myth of Meritocracy #stopcommoncore #ccss | Stop Common Core Illinois said:

    […] was a very interesting essay I read on Yong Zhao’s site a while back. It relates the reason why tests became so all important in their culture: China […]

  • Is Education Becoming too Political? | Fordham Political Review said:

    […] Unfortunately, while Chinese education may receive the best scores, they may also produce some of the worst students because many lack the ability to think creatively and independently. They simply know how to master […]

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