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?