the cultural work of tests


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

the gaokao is over and shenzhen feels more relaxed. it’s as if the entire city has sighed and thoughts turned to summer. of course, the zhongkao still hovers darkly, but for the rest of us, life is good.

this gaokao season, i’ve been thinking about the cultural significance of tests and testing because so many students have asked me about the SATs and TOEFL. these students are particularly interested in perfect marks and, in order to achieve those scores, are willing not only to spend weeks of their summer locked away in cram schools, but also to retake the tests 5, 6, and yes 7 times. inquiring minds want to know: why is a perfect score so important?

i’ve spoken with several westerners who think that the purpose of a perfect score is to enhance the social standing of a student. not a few chinese students have told me that a perfect score builds their confidence because it shows their ability. and it’s true that perfect scores do improve both a student’s social standing and sense of self worth. however, neither of these ideas seems to fully explain the levels of anxiety that surround test-taking in shenzhen, where students regularly deride “test taking machines” and yet fear that their own test taking skills aren’t good enough.

these same students also point to the fairness of the US system, in which students can take a test as often as they want. i understand this to mean that achieving a perfect score seems more achievable. but again, this definition of “fairness” begs the question: why do chinese students value perfect scores so highly? what does a perfect score symbolize in the chinese education system?

a brief cultural comparison sheds light on the respective cultural work of tests in china and the US.

in china, the purpose of the gaokao is to rank students and then use this ranking to allocate positions in schools. this ranking is also used to determine who does not get to go to college. in short, a perfect score on the gaokao is the only truly safe score on the exam because with a perfect score a chinese student can attend the department and school of their choice.

in contrast, in the US, the purpose of standardized tests like the SAT is to determine the relative level of a student; american students are more familiar with cut-offs and thresholds. accordingly, brackets are ranked with respect to each other (top 5%, top 10%, top quarter), rather than individual test scores. thus, in terms of US college admissions, there is no meaningful difference between a perfect score of 2,400 and a not so perfect 2,300 – both scores are “highest bracket”.

not surprisingly, chinese students want perfect scores on the SAT and TOEFL, believing that these scores will guarantee admission to top US schools. and these scores do help. however, as american students know all too well, perfect scores do not guarantee admission to a top university, they merely get said student looked at more closely.

of course, in both china and the US, most of us tend to forget that a college diploma, like a test score is not an end in itself, but a means to some greater goal, begging the question: what is the greater good that our respective test systems serve? and is that higher good good enough?

3 thoughts on “the cultural work of tests

  1. Pingback: Global Voices in English » China and the U.S: The cultural work of tests

  2. To answer your questions, I would say that in both cases, the test systems serve the greater good of encouraging students to work hard in order to improve themselves and enrich their culture.

    Have you ever seen an Asian (any Eastern Asian country) quiz game on TV? People who don’t answer correctly usually get “punished” in an amusing (for the audience) and at times harsh (for the participants) way. Well, this reflects the different cultural premise that Asian countries have when it comes to culture education and learning.

    While in the West knowledge is awarded and praised, in Asia they punish its lack, because it’s people duty to learn.

    Learning is a duty in Asia, while in the West it’s a right, and it’s my opinion that these different mentalities are greatly reflected in the respective testing systems.

    Speaking of the social consequences of the testing systems, I have no direct knowledge of the Chinese one, although I live in China, but I can say that in Korea the pressure surrounding a student during the year preceding the college entrance exam is so high that invariably and tragically there is some suicide committed every year.

    The pressure of the large competition, merged with the need to keep “face” is a powerful push for Chinese students.

    Americans, although the concept of “mianzi” manifests itself in different forms, so that they don’t have to necessarily save appearances in front of their peers, family, neighbors, still feel the pressure of the competition.

    In a society that at times too simplistically divides people into “winners” and “losers,” performing well at the exams and entering good universities is a must. Nobody wants to be left behind.

    In this respect I see little difference between Americans and Chinese.

    Finally, speaking of whether the greater good, that I would identify in both countries with the improvement of the cultural baggage in order to access better education and career opportunities, is good enough, I would see no differences in the US ad China. In both countries it’s a relative concept.

    The point here is that it’s up to individuals and their personal ambitions. Some people would want to work hard to achieve as much as possible, maybe because this is the only way for them to climb the social ladder.

    Other people -in China it’s very common- just want to accumulate awards, titles and degrees in order to boast their achievements with their peers and therefore increase their social prestige, regardless of the contents of their studies.

    Sorry for this lenghty post, but your remarks are very interesting and would trigger questions and discussions for another year at least 🙂

    • hi john, thanks for your insights.

      your comment that in neo-confucian societies view learning is an obligation and in the west it is a right interests me because i would state the situation in a slightly different way. i would say that in shenzhen, knowledge brings with it obligations and responsibilities, while in the u.s. it brings rights and rewards. in other words, education is the way through which we are variously inserted into social relationships.

      on the one hand, i’ve found shenzhen people to be more forgiving of ignorance than americans. the most obvious example, of course, is language skills. chinese people regularly excuse and help foreigners who can’t speak mandarin, while in the states, americans regularly don’t excuse and don’t help people who can’t speak english. there seem to be two different expectations at work in these different valuations. on the one hand, chinese speakers expect that foreigners will not have had an opportunity to learn mandarin and so therefore will not speak mandarin. accordingly, any efforts are treated with kindness. on the other hand, u.s. americans expect that if someone decides to come to the u.s., they will take the time to learn the language of the country and so therefore should speak english. accordingly, any mistakes are treated brusquely.

      so a question of where responsibility for learning lies and its nuances. in shenzhen, students have a responsibility to take advantage of all opportunities to learn. however, if they do not have those opportunities, there is a general consensus that ignorance is not their fault. in contrast, in the u.s. my experience was that the opportunity to learn is presumed. people who choose not to learn [irrespective of opportunity] are treated with contempt because it is assumed that either (a) they don’t care about knowledge or (b) they are stupid.

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