Education Opinion

Cracking the SAT the Chinese Way

By Walt Gardner — May 09, 2011 2 min read
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With the debate over standardized testing increasingly focused on using the results to evaluate teachers, it’s easy to forget about the SAT. How students in China are gaming the grandfather of all standardized tests was the subject of an article by Daniel Golden that was published in Bloomberg Businessweek on May 5 (“China’s Test Prep Juggernaut”). Golden is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates (Crown Publishers, 2006).

Golden uses the track record of New Oriental Education & Technology Group, which was founded in Beijing in 1993, to demonstrate how scoring high on the SAT is less an indication of understanding than of tactics. Chinese students, who are desperate to be accepted at colleges in the U.S., spend $6,100 to endure an intensive two-month, six-days-a-week course that has produced impressive test scores. For example, New Oriental’s 1,200 applicants to the University of Virginia this year posted an average of 610 out of 800 on the SAT’s reading section and 670 in writing, as compared with 641 in reading and 650 in writing for U.S. applicants. They scored an average of 783 in math, compared with 669 for U.S. students. (New Oriental does not release scores for all its students.)

More than 200,000 students in China in the year ended on Feb. 28 underwent the grueling test prep regimen. The Princeton Review and Kaplan, the two biggest test prep companies in the U.S., reluctantly acknowledge the success of New Oriental but hasten to add that it sets students up for failure at colleges in the U.S.

What is New Oriental’s secret and what does it say about standardized tests that are used as gatekeepers?

In order to allow comparisons between test takers to be made from year to year, standardized tests do not differ dramatically from one time to another. Therefore, certain patterns and clues emerge from scrutinizing past copies of the test. SAT essay questions, for example, tend to be predictable. As a result, test takers can memorize mini scripts that can be tweaked to meet the specific requirements of virtually any essay question. SAT grammar items can often be answered correctly by learning to avoid detractors containing certain characteristics. These practices may sound farfetched, but they seem to work.

What is troubling about the entire test prep industry, whether in China or in the U.S., however, is that it not only gives a decided advantage to students who are able to pay for a particular program, but it also misleads colleges into equating a score with understanding. That’s why it’s not uncommon for students in China to perform well on the SAT but still be unable to carry on a conversation in English.

Nevertheless, the test prep industry in China and in other countries will only grow more profitable in the years ahead as students and their parents become more anxious, and colleges become more dependent on the full international tuition foreign students pay. For private colleges, tuition, room and board can easily cost $50,000 a year, as compared with $35,000 for public ones. It’s another example of the corporatization of higher education.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.