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John Richard Schrock: Why Doesn’t China Get Off the Teach-to-the-Test System?

29 December 2010 26,736 5 Comments

I was very impressed with John Richard Shrock‘s reaction to the NPR story on Chinese students PISA performance and asked if I could repost it here. He generously agreed. Thanks, John.

What is most important in John’s message is his analysis of why China cannot easily get off the damaging teach-to-the-test-system and his cautions to those who are working hard to push high stakes testing in the US.

If you are interested in how the Chinese are reacting to China’s PISA performance, listen to this hour-long discussion on China Radio International (English):



On Wednesday, Dec. 29, Nation Public Radio ran a brief but accurate summary of the reaction to China’s students from Shanghai scoring highest in the recent PISA exam.

They almost got it right.  China’s high school leaving exam or “gao kao” does drive the memorization that pervades Chinese education since ~650AD.

But what was missed is WHY China stays on the gao kao.  Many of China’s Education Ministry staff and university education experts (in content fields) iknow that  they need to get off of this standardized exam that drives pre-college curriculum and promotes memorization.  Similar to the Korean Ministry of Education staff who responded to their similar TIMSS results earlier in this decade, where Korea took the top score, (and I roughly translate): “Big deal, we train students to take tests but we don’t get Nobel Prizes (in science and math).”

So the NPR conclusion that China’s stellar performance on the PISA is no “Sputnik moment” is correct.

But NPR left listeners asking: why doesn’t China get off of the teach-to-the-test system? An additional 10 seconds could have explained why.

China has been trying to do so.  After a one-week conference at East China Normal University in December 1993, the Shanghai testing sector removed biology from the 1995 gao kao topics in order to allow high school teachers to break from aligning curriculum to the prior year’s test. (There was some regional variation in the national gao kao at that time, still is.) The result was that students ignored and slept through biology class since they had enough other tested material to study for, and their parents promoted this ignoring-of-anything-not-on-the-gao kao. Needless to say, after 2 years, biology was back on the Shanghai gao kao.

This last summer, while I was working in Yangling and watching the Chinese evening news, they announced that the new scheme proposed last year to allow some creative high school kids to enter the top elite universities based on headmaster recommendations rather than the gao kao score was subverted.  Sure, the recommendations would be read, but no student who had not also taken the gao kao with a passing score would be admitted.  This was directly due to the massive public unpopularity of providing this alternate route, seen (and with legitimate reason) as leading to favoritism, corruption, etc.

Much of this is driven by the gao kao being a critical determiner of a student’s fate. Go to a good university and you will make bills; don’t and you will likely make coins/day and have a hard life. 4 grandparents and 2 parents invest in that son or daughter as their social security, and if the child does not score high enough to get into college, it is often a financial disaster for the whole family. Therefore, fairness in this college selection is a major social pressure release valve.  Nearly 100% of Western reporters (NPR’s Luisa Lim being the only exception) get this wrong and assume that the “lower class” in China will rebel at any moment. Not true. Poor people in China accept that they are poor because they do not have an education; but if their child has the opportunity to get an education, then all is calm.  Therefore, allowing some students to get into college without going through the merit exam is a problem for China because of where they come from in history…the severe social injustices of pre-1949.  That is what NPR left out…listeners are left to just assume that all China would have to do is end the gao kao and China could let 100 flowers of creative teaching bloom.

China is working toward more creativity, but teachers teach as they have been taught. They do not know how to ask creative questions because they went through school memorizing for the gao kao.  Without  models, this is not easy to turn around.

The implications for the U.S. are big.  We have just seen 43 states and DC adopt a Common Core curriculum that will have a Common Core national test (common “yardstick”) in 2014-15, and another name for that national test is “gao kao.”  It will drive U.S. education for decades and we may never be able to get off of it.  The American teacher was always unique in deciding what to teach, when to teach, and how to teach it…and the variability in creative questioning has gained us 270+ Nobel Prizes.  (Score for China-educated doing research in China is zero…but that will soon change due to many who return after receiving a graduate education in U.S.) But now, partly from test envy and international ignorance, we have headed down a path to standardization in testing that we will not be able to get out of in our lifetime.

I can see it because I am in China normal schools each summer.  Linda Darling-Hammond, Arne Duncan, Chester Finn Jr., etc. do not.

And today, even at the college level, professors are now seeing forces to standardize what we teach, under the rubrics of seamless articulation, competency-based learning, and state directives to increase retention. Having destroyed professionalism at the K-12 level, American educationists are now ready to apply the external-tests-are-everything paradigm to the best university system in the world.

John Richard Schrock

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  • Big Education Ape: Ed News Now « Parents 4 democratic Schools said:

    […] wise words on that legacy to offer here but I do want to make a com… coopmike48 John Richard Schrock: Why Doesn’t China Get Off the Teach-to-the-Test System? – I was very impressed with John Richard Shrock‘s reaction to the NPR […]

  • China and the test culture: how reversal isn’t easy | Malcolm Bellamy's Lifelong Learning Blog said:

    […] The article argues very persuasively the reasons why the social conditions and culture of China mean that the GaoKao will not stop overnight as the dominant force in Chinese education. The Chinese though are acutely aware that their growing economic power will only be sustained if they are to follow the innovation and creativity that has seen the United States rise to pre-eminent power in the world in the late twentieth century. […]

  • Julia said:

    I am curious: do you believe that having a high-stakes exam necessarily eliminates creative questioning and promotes rote memorization?
    As an IB high school teacher, I do not find this to be true, as long as I still get to choose how to teach. I teach mathematics and psychology, and I imagine that in both courses I succeed in getting my students to think critically and independently.

    Not all my students are that worried about the exam either, probably because they can retake it several times.
    Of course I’d appreciate more freedom in designing my own syllabus and in assessment, but I know by comparing with other schools (here in Sweden) that this freedom comes at a cost, which, frankly, is probably not worth it for the majority of the students (even if theoretically it may produce more nobel prize winners).

  • Marvin McConoughey said:

    It is ironic that Japan, which was once renowned for educational rigor and pressure, has been trying to change. See for example, but there are many other writings.

    I wonder if Japan will be happy with the economic outcome of its education reform. Japan has achieved astonishing economic success for a moderate sized island nation with few natural resources. Recall that Japan was a heavily-bombed economic wreck after WWII. Did it achieve its great success despite a terrible education system? Or, was the much-maligned system a crucial factor in Japan’s rise to power?

    In terms of innovation, Japan has led the world in automobile success in modern times. Honda had the first variable valve operation system in a mass production car. Japan has a strong scientific sector, excels in many forms of engineering, and produces some of the world’s finest optical equipment. Much more could be added.

    Changing what doesn’t work is understandable, even when the reformers can’t agree on what to do. Changing a system with a record of success is problematic when the reformers themselves disagree on what to change.

  • Sam Harley said:

    This certainly rings true, as I teach many Chinese students preparing to enter American universities. If you want to induce a panic attack, simply say ‘test’ to them. They are terrified of tests, in general. Also, they continually want me to tell them the answer so they can memorize it. Repeatedly I tell them that, in literary studies, any answer is acceptable if they can back it up from the text. Yet their training leads them to memorize what they think I want to hear. I have had to stop writing answers on the board; they will copy them rather than think about them. For most of them it is a brand new experience and a disorienting one. I have had to resort to games, repeated reminders and more to get them to venture opinions in class and ask questions. In Chinese schools, from what my students tell me, you shut up, listen and take notes. No one wants to know what you think. It takes a lot of coaxing to get them out of their shells.

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