International Opinion

Big Tests, Big Sticks

By Alfonso J. Orsini — July 12, 2005 7 min read
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China is a country that promises to change the economic face of the globe in the years ahead. It has an incredibly lean, mean education machine.

This past school year, I have been teaching English for a special program at a public school in China. The experience has made me think a lot about the push toward high-stakes testing in the United States, especially with the impetus of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

China is a country that promises to change the economic face of the globe in the years ahead. It has an incredibly lean, mean education machine. American policymakers, seeing embarrassing data such as the poor showing of U.S. students on recent international assessments in science and math, say they want to prepare our children to meet the global competition posed by countries like China.

If the No Child Left Behind law is meant to do that—to help us compete with countries that have used big tests for a long time to scientifically weed and stratify their citizens—the plan will fail. This is not just because of the problems inherent in creating and enacting such tests, but also because of the differing social, economic, and cultural contexts that surround such tests.

Here is what the United States is up against. In China, all of the items on American business interests’ education agenda are in evidence. There is a focus on the “useful” subjects of math, science, and technology. There are large, economical classes of 50 to 60 students each. This works fine in China, because the students here are driven, and their teachers mostly lecture. (Their bow to modernization is in using a computer beamer instead of the blackboard.)

Walking through a Chinese classroom, you hear students chanting a lot in unison. The teachers are well-trained, in that they follow the script of slavishly preparing for the big exams. While they teach only about 10 classes a week, they must be in the school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to prepare. Some big exam—schoolwide, citywide, or nationwide—is always looming. The school’s headmaster even assigns teachers research papers. They comply because they want to get a promotion, perhaps a merit raise of 200 yuan ($24) added on to a monthly salary of, say, 2,000 yuan ($242) for a veteran.

Office talk is often about “grammar points” that may appear on an exam. The exams must have a number of virtually impossible questions to keep teachers and students scrambling, and to allow the remarkable few to rise to the top. If students do poorly, it comes back to haunt the teacher and the school. Last year, the local newspaper asked why fewer graduates at my school had been admitted to top universities. That heightened the anxiety.

Another numerically based improvement has been enacted here: more class time. At my boarding school (the stronger public schools in China are boarding), students are in the classroom from late August to late July, six days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., with a 1½-hour lunch/nap break and a five-minute eye-massage break led by a woman’s peppy, almost militaristic voice broadcast over the public address system.

After some sports, dinner, and time to do laundry by hand (we all do laundry by hand here), the students are back in the classroom for study from 6:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m., with monitoring chiefly done by students and only a few teachers roving the halls. When evening study concludes, it’s back up to the dorm to wash up with a basin; there are no hot showers. Then, eight kids bed down in each 9-by-12-foot room.

My kids are from a higher socioeconomic bracket. Their parents are paying 24,000 yuan ($2,900) extra, on top of the regular tuition of 3,000 yuan ($362) per year. I am preparing them to pass the new English entrance exam for a Canadian university. They got into this school only because they paid extra for the special program. With rising prosperity, these kinds of educational back doors, including Australian and United Kingdom foundation-year programs, are popping up all over.

China is progressing not through empire building or aggression, but because it has people willing to do virtually any work with incredible patience and persistence to survive.

My students, always weary but still cheerful, have never dated, never camped or been to a dance, and have almost never traveled. In a paired-discussion exercise in which they had to find something interesting about a classmate, everyone was astounded that a boy called Nick had danced with a girl at his aunt’s wedding. In our town of Qingdao, one of the hottest places to be on a Saturday or Sunday is not the shopping mall but the Xin Hua bookstore.

The educational rigor in China results from the social context. Only about 48 percent of rural residents and 79 percent of urban residents attain more than a primary school education. Of the 27 million students completing the “compulsory” grade 9, around 25 percent go into a three-year academic high school program and 18 percent go into vocational training. Of those 6.67 million who go to academic high schools, around 3.5 million will make it to a four-year university program. The statistics are harsher in some areas. In Beijing, 49 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds are enrolled in postsecondary studies, but in places like Yunan Province, fewer than 9 percent are enrolled.

But this doesn’t mean that the Chinese don’t value education. There are 310 million people in schools at all levels here, including over a million studying through TV university. The number of university students in China has grown from 1.08 million in 1998 to more than 17 million in 2003. And the Chinese government has just launched a program to send 5,000 college teachers overseas each year for doctoral study or research.

China has a cheap, willing workforce composed partly of the 310 million surplus workers from the rural provinces, only 180 million of whom found jobs in 2003.It also has a cheap, well-trained professional class. Doctors earn perhaps 2,000 yuan ($242) a month, beginning teachers maybe 1,000 yuan ($121). People live remarkably frugal lives. China is progressing not through empire building or aggression, but because it has people willing to do virtually any work with incredible patience and persistence to survive. And it is selling this, the cheapest labor in the world, to all takers, including many U.S. investors. It is also building cooperative ties with Canada, Europe, and Latin America, and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations group, which will create a free-trade zone of 2 billion people.

U.S. business leaders, in their urgent push to whip American education into line, may be among the few in our country who are truly aware of how things are outside the United States. They have a concrete motivation to be aware: money. And they may be seeing, correctly, that the peaceful threat posed by China and others developing nations requires that we do something differently. Some might say that a first step should be lowering the salaries of business executives. But if my perspective from China is valid, then a more general “leaning” of America may have to happen before big tests are widely tolerated by U.S. students and their families.

For now, we Americans can make all the tests we want. Kids will never be “lean and hungry” in a fat society.

Big, consequential tests run up against a lot of obstacles in America. One of them is fundamental—what the historian Richard Hofstadter labeled in his influential book as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Others include the distraction posed by the cultural excesses that assault American kids every day and the fact that U.S. students know there is a college in America for just about anyone who can pay for it. But beyond such problems, I wonder if American kids sometimes don’t care about study because they sense that many adults don’t care about them—about the life of their minds and the enrichment of their souls.

When American adults who are busy making money create the kinds of sweeping educational schemes we have now, they implicitly view young people’s learning—and young people themselves—as a means to an end, the figures on a balance sheet. And too often they don’t even care enough to spend sufficient time or money on education. The No Child Left Behind initiative, which might better be called “no child left unclassified and not appropriately employed,” is a case in point. When American kids start to get “left behind” (in most countries with big tests, that’s what the tests are for), we can assume that parents with the means and education will be lined up to yell about it. But when federal funds get withdrawn from schools that fail, where will those already-beleaguered schools turn? How will their low-income students find another school?

If America winds up with the diminished role in the world and leaner standard of living that the new global economy may offer, there may be far fewer American parents with means and education. And one can bet that far more people will fall into line behind rigorous national testing. They will have no choice, as is the case today in China and in many other lands. My Chinese students always say: “That’s how it is, with so many people and so little money. That’s just how it is.”

For now, we Americans can make all the tests we want. Kids will never be “lean and hungry” in a fat society. And the egotism of infinite possibility will never prevail against the fierce capacity for self-abnegation in the Asian psyche.

Isn’t there another way that America can use its prosperity, not to build empires, but to enhance the quality of its people’s lives? How China will use its eventual prosperity remains to be seen. We can hope, however, that its choices will not help prove the axiom that countries attaining prosperity and democracy must become effete, stratified, and sometimes arrogant.

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