China and the test culture: how reversal isn’t easy

I am a follower of Professor Yong Zhao (now at the University of Oregon, previously of Michigan State University). I have read a lot of his arguments about the need for the United States to preserve the creative outlook of its education system and not make the mistake of going down the road of introducing a narrow, heavily tested, curriculum that was the way he had been educated in his native China.
In March of last year Zhao wrote “Does the U.S. Want what China Wants to Throw Away: The Role of Testing in Two National Education Reform Plans” In this post he posited the idea that China is aware that there are new skills that are required to be effective and successful in the 21st century. It seems that Chinese leaders are aware that the old tradition of the GaoKao test needs to be reformed and that they need to promote more individualism and creativity in schools and universities.. to quote Zhao: “China has fully recognized the damages of the gaokao and has been working on curriculum and pedagogical reforms in order to mitigate the negative consequences of gaokao. It has also been trying to reform the gaokao. But until now it has not touched the root cause on a national scale (for more discussion about education reforms in China and the problems of gaokao, pls. read my recent book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization).”

In 2009 there was a PISA assessment the report was published in December 2010  (PISA is: The Programme for International Student Assessment , an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by participating economies and administered to 15-year-olds in schools from all over the world). The place that came out as the top score was Shanghai in China. To see the results go to Shanghai had a score of 600 on the Mathematics Scale as against the OECD average of 496 and 575 on the Science Scale as against an OECD average of 501.

This has led to a number of pro-test people in the U.S. and over here in my country the United Kingdom, saying that this proves that testing and teaching to a test is the answer. But the Chinese have hardly gone head over heels in celebration. This is because they are, as Professor Zhao stated above, trying to reverse the dominance of GaoKao in their education system.

No, it is places like the United States and here in Britain, where the proponents of rigid testing and a narrow taught curriculum have latched on to the results as some sort of proof that they are heading their countries in the right direction.

This morning, I read Professor  Zhao’s recent post which has quoted in full an article by Professor John Richard Schrock (Professor of Biological Sciences, Emporia University, Kansas) called “Why Doesn’t China Get Off the Teach-to-the-Test System?”

This is a powerful article in which Professor Schrock, who has spent many years going over to China and working there, travelling extensively across the country, points out the fact that both China and Korea come very high up in the PISA ratings but have not produced a single Nobel Laureate  whereas The United States  has had 270 + laureates!

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.

Professor Schrock took part in an excellent debate on Minnesota Public Radio called “A Sputnik Moment”. He was debating the PISA results and their implications with Mike Petrilli: Vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington D.C. In this civilised debate, we hear the polarity of the debate about the implications of the PISA results.

I am a strong believer that both Professors Zhao and Schrock, who know China exceptionally well from being there so often and talking and working with the Chinese themselves, are correct in saying that we must not be fooled by Shanghai’s success into believing that testing is the answer. Reversal isn’t easy (it’s like a tanker trying to turn around at sea) but China is aware of the way to go and the United States and Britain need to be wary of thinking that they need to reverse in the opposite direction. At some point they might meet… but it will be us going the wrong way!

Update: I have received an e-mail from Professor Schrock in which he has added some points to the original article thus:

I know that no Chinese educated-in-China, researching-in-China have won Nobels.
The statement from the staff at the Korean Ministry of Education is from an article in a 2001 issue of Science re: TIMSS scores although “we don’t get Nobel Prizes” may not exclude absolutely any Nobels. They saw the limitations of testing early on.

China will soon get some Nobel Prizes in science; many grad students went to the West and learned questioning, experimental design, etc. and have returned to their elite Project 211 universities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They are a center of much discontent with the gao kao system.  Also, many Nobels are awarded to scientists who have crossed borders; such multi-culture perspective may be an advantage, although of course some were fleeing Nazi Germany.



One thought on “China and the test culture: how reversal isn’t easy

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. So many observers who aren’t educators are willing to take one piece of information about test score comparisons and draw conclusions that totally miss the complexity of the situation. We seem particularly anxious in certain quarters of the U.S. to prove ourselves inferior – the purpose being of course to justify anything that dismantles the system.

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