高考: gaokao blues

the dreaded college entrance exam (高考)has just concluded. there are multiple sites dedicated to the exams, but for a sense of the complexity visit one of the many gaokao sites. china today has also published a brief introduction to system. unlike the sats, where students take the test and then apply to various colleges. in the gaokao, students sign up to compete for a limited number of positions in departments in particular universities and then hope that their scores are high enough for that department. how high you have to score depends on where you’re from, because each province is alloted a number of positions, as are the cities in which a given university is located. this means that beijing students need much lower scores to test into a university located in beijing, than do students from other cities and localities.

chinese parents start worrying about the gaokao even before the first day of elementary school. in fact, most of the elementary curriculum is oriented to teaching what students will need to know for the gaokao and how to take the tests. the focus on test-taking increases every year, so that graduating seniors (high school 3) are taking tests all the time. in places like shenzhen, where only two high schools have a reputation for getting students into good colleges, the high school entrance exam is said to be even more competative than the gaokao.

i’ve been earning my living teaching english in an elementary school. consequently, the gaokao impinges on my life because the english exam has become a kind of filter, where the otherwise equally qualified in mathematics and physics get distinguished. however, making standardized tests the goal of foreign language learning has predictable results–even after ten years of studying english, students can take tests, but have difficulty communicating, reading for comprehension, and using english in creative ways. i have been fighting for a chance to reform the curriculum and teach a more language arts based curriculum, including reading stories and experimenting with poetry and musical theatre as means for learning language.

chinese parents affirm the goal of making foreign language study about using the language to accomplish tasks (ranging from asking directions to writing a book report), but insist that these skills will not help their children compete on the gaokao. they consistantly point out that foreigners cannot compete with chinese on the standardized english tests. when i point to the problems of standardized tests for developing analytic skills (other than the skill of guessing what the test-writer meant) and self-expression, again, parents agree, but say these skills can be developed later, after the students have tested into a good college. the only time that they see a more comprehensive appraoch to learning english as being desirable is if the student is preparing to go abroad for college.

yesterday, i ended up in a quite heated argument with a very good friend about the gaokao. i expressed disgust at a system that requires memorization of thousands of words, but doesn’t actually introduce students to anything remotely interesting in english. students can study for years without reading a poem, a short-story, a comic book, let alone a report or textbook in english. instead, they are introduced into grammatical forms and then tested on those forms repeatedly, without ever seeing the forms used in context.

my friend said it couldn’t be helped; this was chinese reality.

i countered that chinese reality hadn’t produced a decent education system.

she agreed, but argued that the gaokao was the most egalitarian system in china.

no, i said, if you’re born in the countryside, odds are you won’t get into college. indeed, odds are you won’t finish high school and will end up working in shenzhen or dongguan.

but, she replied, it’s still more fair than any other system in china. she pointed to the arts system, where getting into the national conservatory or school of the arts requires students to accept someone as a teacher, even before they take the entrance exam. because it’s based on subjective criteria, there is no possibility for a fair competition. for example, she continued, shenzhen organized a national oboe competition. all the teachers came and brought their students. the teachers were also the judges. so the organizing committee asked that there be a curtain between the judges and the competators so that the judging could be unbiased. many of the teachers refused, and in the end, the judges were allowed to see who was competing. according to my friend, it was no surprise that every teacher gave his or her student the highest score.

by this time she was furious at the injustice of the system and angry at my lack of understanding of chinese reality.

so then why, i continued, also getting upset that everything was coming down to standardized test scores and competitions, should anyone want to teach in china? i really dislike the way parents drag their children over to talk to me and, when the child remains silent, scold them in front of me, saying, why aren’t you practicing english? this is a really good opportunity. and me standing there, thinking, i’m a person, not an opportunity, and if you left your child alone, maybe he would speak. more likely he’d be playing soccer, but children wasting their time playing is another issue, and i stopped talking after expressing my anger at being seen as just an opportunity.

she sighed. that’s the problem, chinese people are just too worried about the future. but once students get to college, they just want to relax and their teachers don’t really want to teach. so it’s a mess.

i’m still thinking, and why do i want to continue teaching in this system? but at this point, neither of us wanted to continue arguing because clearly we weren’t angry at each other, but rather frustrated by the inhumanity of the gaokao. me because it made parents and educators nervous about any kind of creative teaching, and her because her son will take the high school entrance exams in two years.

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