China’s Higher Education Problem:   Very High-Stakes Testing!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article today on China’s admissions problems to its top universities.  The current system based on a single national test has historically  resulted in disproportionate numbers of admissions from wealthy urban families.  In an effort to change this, the government has proposed setting aside a certain number of admissions to its top universities in Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing to students from the poorer rural provinces.  This has sparked sharp demonstrations across the country both for and against the change in policy.  Here is an excerpt:

“Parents in at least two dozen Chinese cities have taken to the streets in recent weeks to denounce a government effort to expand access to higher education for students from less developed regions. The unusually fierce backlash is testing the Communist Party’s ability to manage class conflict, as well as the political acumen of its leader, Xi Jinping.

The nation’s cutthroat university admissions process has long been a source of anxiety and acrimony. But the breadth and intensity of the demonstrations, many of them organized on social media, appear to have taken the authorities by surprise.

At issue is China’s state-run system of higher education, in which top schools are concentrated in big prosperous cities, mostly on the coast, and weaker, underfunded schools dominate the nation’s interior.

Placement is determined almost exclusively by a single national exam, the gaokao, which was administered across China starting on Tuesday. The test is considered so important to one’s fate that many parents begin preparing their children for it before kindergarten. The government has threatened to imprison cheaters for up to seven years.

The exam gives the admissions system a meritocratic sheen, but the government also reserves most spaces in universities for students in the same city or province, in effect making it harder for applicants from the hinterlands to get into the nation’s best schools.

The authorities have sought to address the problem in recent years by admitting more students from underrepresented regions to the top colleges. Some provinces also award extra points on the test to students representing ethnic minorities.

This spring, the Ministry of Education announced that it would set aside a record 140,000 spaces — about 6.5 percent of spots in the top schools — for students from less developed provinces. But the ministry said it would force the schools to admit fewer local students to make room.

Against the backdrop of slowing economic growth, the plan set off a flurry of protests and counterprotests.

In Wuhan, a major city in central China known for its good universities, parents surrounded government offices to demand more spots for local students. In Harbin, a northeastern city, parents marched through the streets, calling the new admissions mandate unjust.

But in Luoyang, a city in Henan Province, one of China’s poorest and most populous, protesters countered that children should be treated with “equal love.” And in Baoding, a few hours’ drive southwest of Beijing, parents accused the government of coddling the urban elite at the expense of rural students.

“When they need water, land and crops, they come and take it,” said Lu Jian, 42, an electrician who participated in the protests in Baoding. “But they won’t let our kids study in Beijing.”

I have been fortunate to make two trips to China (2001 and 2006) as part of education exchanges with colleagues from CUNY and our counterparts in Shanxi Province.  The issue is a serious one that evokes great passion on the part of the Chinese people.  The national testing system permeates all discussions about college admission and education in general and is about as high-stakes as exists.  Parents push their students to start preparing for the test in primary school.  It is a sad situation based on a testing system that has existed for centuries.



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