The downside of exam-based education in China

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    Eighteen-year-old Wan Chao studies for the gao kao at his home in Shanghai. He's usually up until midnight studying for the test which will determine the university he'll attend and which economic slot in today's China he'll fit into. Wan says he hopes to be a teacher someday.

    - Marketplace

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    Student Wan Chao with his parents in their Shanghai home. His mother and father differ on how hard to push their son. Wan's mother is worried that her son isn't retaining much when he studies. His father thinks they shouldn't pressure their son too much. It's a battle that's fought in households throughout China.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Students in Teacher Gao Xueming's English class recite words from their workbooks out loud. Rote memorization is the most common teaching method in China, where students take practice test after practice test in preparation for the Gaokao.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    A student recites a sentence in English as the rest of the class follows along in their workbooks. Students from Shanghai shocked the rest of the world when they beat out their international peers to get the top scores in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the U.S. needed to see these results as "a wake-up call."

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Chinese students walking to class in Beijing. Their identical school uniforms emphasize equality, but that notion comes to an end after the gao kao, when China's young people are separated into a hierarchy of universities which will determine their socioeconomic lot in life.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

Tess Vigeland: Today is the first day of China's national entrance examination -- known in Chinese as the "gao kao." Millions of Chinese high school graduates will spend three nerve-wracking days taking a test that will pretty much decide the rest of their lives. But is China's test-obsessed culture producing the innovators it needs to compete in the 21st century economy?

Marketplace's Rob Schmitz has the first in a series of stories on China's education crisis.

Rob Schmitz: Eighteen-year-old Wan Chao is memorizing a lot of things these days, but as he sits in his bedroom overlooking the busy Shanghai expressway on this cool evening in March, the number 87 is on his mind.

Wan Chao: In exactly 87 days, I take the gao kao. Ever since the beginning of senior year, I've felt anxious and scared, all because of this test.

Wan's score on this test will help determine the university he attends, what he studies, his career, where he'll meet a potential spouse, and how much money he'll make. And that's why Wan spends nearly every waking hour studying.

Chao: Careful. Careless. Cargo.

He studies English by repeating words from a dictionary, sometimes spelling them out loud. The same memorization exercise is performed daily at high schools throughout China.

Gao Xueming: Funerals.

Students: Funerals. Funerals.

At a high school in Shanghai, English teacher Gao Xueming is preparing her students for an upcoming quiz. Teacher Gao admits the exercise is about as much fun as a funeral, but it's the most efficient way to prepare for the gao kao.

Xueming: Because students should take the national examination, so correctness is very important.

Taking exams has been the way to get ahead in China since the 7th century AD. Back then, mastering the Confucian classics was the ticket to a job in the imperial bureaucracy. Today, 15-year-olds here in Shanghai overwhelmingly beat out their peers throughout the world last year in the Program for International Student Assessment, an International standardized test. American 15-year-olds ranked 17th.

Wang Jianding: This test proved that our students from Shanghai are the world's best students in reading, science, and math.

Wang Jianding is the principal of Xinzhuang High School in Shanghai.

Jianding: I think there are several factors contributing to our students' success: First, Chinese society traditionally values education. Secondly, the Chinese government has ensured a solid education system as the foundation of rapid economic development.

But is acing a standardized test the key to an innovative economy?

Shaun Rein: The education system and its inability to train analytical students is the biggest crisis facing China today.

Shaun Rein is the managing director of China Market Research, a market intelligence firm based in Shanghai. He says after studying for tests for most of their lives, Chinese graduates are programmed to memorize correct answers instead of performing the more complex task of working out a solution themselves. Rein's firm recruits analysts from China's top universities. He's found they're very good at researching data.

Rein: But they can't take it to the next level. And when they try to develop a strategy, or synthesize the information, they tend to just copy something that they saw being done elsewhere in the market, so they say, "Oh that company did this, let's do the exact same thing." Rather than saying, "This is what the trends are, this is what the competition has done, this is where we think you need to be in order to really grow well in China."

Rein says another problem is these 20-somethings -- "little emperors" from the one-child generation -- are still at home and spoiled.

Rein: Their parents went through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and don't want their kids to have any difficult times, so they're enablers. They tell their kids, "Oh don't work late!" If you run into a tough situation, go work at a state-owned enterprise, it'll be easier there.

Rein's firm recently interviewed Fortune 500 companies in China. It found that most of them have an annual turnover rate of around 30 percent. In the U.S., 11 percent is considered high. Rein says most Chinese graduates are not qualified for a global business system. He predicts this will soon start to wear on China's economy. He says multinationals, frustrated with Chinese employees, may start to hire more foreigners or they'll relocate operations somewhere else.

Chao: Cat. C-a-t. Cartoon. C-a-r-t-o-o-n.

But none of this matters to student Wan Chao, trying to memorize an English dictionary in his Shanghai bedroom. In the next room, his mom and dad bicker about their son's study habits.

Chao's mother: The problem is he doesn't want to understand his mistakes. He doesn't ask questions. I said it's OK if you make mistakes, but you need to figure out why you make mistakes. I've told him: If you fail the gao kao, I won't do anything for you. You have to feed yourself and wash your own socks.

Chao's father: Stop talking. What's the point of talking about it over and over?

Wan's mother says her son doesn't understand how serious the situation is. If he fails the gao kao, he'll fail to find a good job. And as any Chinese parent knows, without a good job, there's little hope for...

Students: Prosperity. Prosperity.

In Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

You can find out more about the gao kao and China's education system on Rob's Chinopoly blog.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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Local governments participating in this scholarship is Fujian, Tianjin, Sichuan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Shandong, Heilongjiang, Guangxi, Beijing, Jilin, Fujian, Nanjing, Chongqing, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Yiwu, Xinjiang Uygur, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Guangdong. Detailed information about each scholarship can be listened to on its website of China Scholarship Council (CSC). http://goo.gl/3vrSEo

Actually, from my experience. Talented students come to the US for Graduate studies, while the rich ones come here for Under-grad or high school. The obvious reason is cost, since undergrad seldom have scholarships for international students, while graduate studies program often do, and Chinese university have quite generousness fellowships for studying aboard in Master and PH.D programs.

As the Gaokao itself, rote memorization will get you about half-way through the exam. (Which is good enough to go A universality) But you will need thing cap the later half, that's the difference between those goes to Hebei University of Science and Technology and project 985 institutions like Tsinghua. Just go reading actual the exam that just been public now, some of the questions are rote, some are similar to AP question I have taken before and others just ridiculous.

For anonano anon,

I have specifically mentioned in my comment that on average Shanghai (and also Beijing) students fall far behind some poorer regions of China on the gaokao score (and in fact, the Shanghai/Beijing version of the gaokao test have been watered down because of this). There is no reason for these other students to not do even better on the PISA test.

Second, I have also specifically mentioned there are a small minority of very qualified Chinese students coming to the US for their undergrad. studies, but they are by far, a small minority.

Some errors in the comments. From Hao Chen, we have the idea that only luobangsheng (failed exam takers) send their students abroad, which is ridiculous as a class of very talented students are now going abroad as well. From Christian de Pee we have the idea that the keju was literary and thus open-answer - the answers for high-level exams were very open, but not for the lower-level exams, which absolutely stressed your ability to memorize huge amounts of text and get them into your answer. Most students never made it to the highest levels. Lastly, we have John Ross who insists that US students on average are less qualified "creatively" for US graduate programs compared to Chinese, which is ridiculous - we specifically don't have the information we need from the rest of China to know about student abilities (and remember the PISA was only submitted for Shanghai).

The Gaokao is not "basically about rote memorization" just like SAT is not "basically about rote memorization."

The reporters have no clue about the Chinese education system. There are a number of misconceptions:

1. Historically poorer provinces like Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang have been the most competitive when you compare gaokao scores. Shanghai have lacked far behind for many, many years. In fact the Gaokao test taken by Shanghai students are watered-down compared to provinces named above.

2. Mark Schneider, a commissioner of the Department of Education’s research arm in the George W. Bush administration had this to say about the Shanghai (Chinese) students who came on tops of the 2010 international high school PISA standardized test "This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China, while that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning."

3. Families who send their kids to American colleges with their own funding are family of students who cannot hack the Gaokao. There are those students who come for undergrad studies in US colleges with scholarships, but they are the exception.

4. If you take a good look at any objective measure of the quality of Chinese high school students as compared to the world (International Mathematical Olympiad, International Olympiad in Informatics, International Chemistry Olympiad, International Physics Olympiad, ACM ICPC), what you'll find is that not only does Chinese students do very well, they dominate these academic competitions.

Oh my god, this report is so vivid, and it recalled all my memory back to the time when I was preparing for the Gaokao.

I totally agree that there are many issues in this system, but I can't think of any alternatives in China right now. With so many kids waiting for the admission, and so few good universities, the gap in the supply/demand is just too big for any other types of selection. think about it, the most commonly quoted alternative would be 70% based on your college entry score, 30% based on in-person interviews, or some school-specific test. this will create high loophole in China, as those Rich or powerful man can always use this to put their kids into the top universities. this is totally unfair to students from rural areas, and It won't be good for the long-term development of the country.
So I think as of now, GaoKao, as hard and horrible as it could be, is still the best option for Chinese

The comparison of the gaokao to the examinations of imperial times is misleading. Although candidates in the imperial examinations indeed memorized ancient classics with their commentaries, along with much of the literary and historical canon, the examinations did not consist in a rote reproduction of memorized passages. Instead, candidates wrote poems, rhapsodies, policy essays, or exegetical expositions (the form of the examinations changed over time), in response to given topics or in answer to broadly formulated, conceptual questions. A distinct, individual style or a creative appropriation of ancient commonplaces could earn a candidate lasting fame. The men who passed the imperial examinations were erudite men of letters on the lines of Samuel Johnson, not contestants in a quiz show or a multiple-choice test.

Exactly. We saw this in the entertainment industry years before this topic was barely mentioned. There were plenty of musicians who could emulate Coltrane perfectly but improvising and creating and offering something new to a piece of music, these Chinese musicians were a complete failure. That is still the case in the arts.

Problem solving and creative thinking - this is America's strength and why the h we are right now CUTTING these areas in education... now THAT is an example of American stupidity and failure.

Mr. Rein's comment have to be
critically analyzed. Realistically, US students are even less qualified than foreign students to think creatively, if the proportions of graduate students at universities are any guide.

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