When I first read Brook Larmer ‘s profile of 18-year-old Yang and his family inside Chinese test prep factory, I was slightly skeptical of Larmer’s narrative regarding Yang, the young lad who exceeds his dreams on the intensely competitive gaokao.
Why was I skeptical? Well, while the novice might find Larmer’s article emotionally draining, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese academic culture will notice a huge, gaping hole.
I noticed the hole, which led me to an observation, which led me to seek a better understanding of how the gaokao works, which led to my somewhat horrified understanding that the gaokao’s reality is almost exactly the opposite of its reputation, at least as presented by the American media.
The hole: In a story dedicated to students preparing for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (aka the gaokao) Larmer never once mentions cheating. This would be a problematic oversight in any event, but particularly so given the outcome of Yang’s efforts.
When Larmer returned to the town for his second visit, the day before the gaokao, Yang’s scores, which had been dropping, had not improved. As a result, Yang had kicked out his mom and brought his grandfather to live with him in Maotanchang for the last few weeks of prep. While Larmer drove into town with Yang’s parents, the grandfather refused to let Larmer accompany the family to the test site. Grandpa was afraid the family might “get in trouble” for talking to a reporter, according to “someone”.
Yang does exceptionally well, given his fears—“his scores far surpassed his recent practice tests”. Sadly, his friend Cao tanks because he “had a panic attack”.
Yang’s scores were considerably beyond what his recent performance had predicted. Yet it apparently never once occurred to Larmer that perhaps Yang and Grandpa prudently got the New York Times reporter out of the way before they paid for a guaranteed result. Maybe Yang wanted more aid than could be provided with “‘brain-rejuvenating’ tea”. Maybe Gramps didn’t want Larmer to see Yang wired up for sound. Or maybe the old man had really put in some money and paid for a double.
It’s possible, I guess, that Yang just had a great day and exceeded his wildest dreams. But Larmer’s failure to mention the possibility is journalistic malpractice.
When I realized that Larmer hadn’t mentioned cheating, I read the piece again, thinking I must have missed it. Nope. But that second readthrough led to an observation.
I got curious—just curious, nothing skeptical at this point—about the school’s gender restriction on teachers. Was that just for cram schools? What was the gender distribution of Chinese teachers?
I couldn’t find anything. No confirmation that the teacher were all male, no comprehensive source on cram schools, no readily available data on Maotanchang. I couldn’t find anything at all about the school’s business practices online. So I went back to Larmer’s paper to look for a source for that fact—and nothing.
And so, the observation: In his description of the school’s interior and practices, Larmer doesn’t mention interviews with school representatives, other journalism, or a Big Book of Facts on Chinese Cram Schools.
The earliest detailed description of Maotanchang online appears to be this August 2013 article in China Youth Daily, a Beijing paper, which created quite a furor in China and largely ignored here because we can’t read Chinese. Rachel Lu, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, restated some key points for those folks who don’t read Chinese, which is nice of her, because what idiot would copy and paste the Chinese piece into Google Translate?
Yeah, well, I’m an idiot. I won’t bore people with the extended version, but a lot of the details that Larmer didn’t seem to personally witness show up in the Chinese story: same school official quoting management theory, teachers using bullhorns, Maotanchang’s 1939 origins, bus license plates ending in 8, burning incense at the town’s sacred tree, teacher dismissals for low scores.
The excitement over the China Youth Daily article generated more interest, like Exam Boot Camp, also written in August 2013, happily in English, which profiled a female student and her mother who provide data points like higher prices for lower scoring students ,lack of electrical outlets, and surveillance cameras in the classroom.
Am I accusing Larmer of lifting tidbits from these other stories? Well, let’s say instead that I’d like to know where he got the information.
Reading through these stories looking for sources led me to all sorts of “new things” to learn about the gaokao. These “new things” are readily available online; in fact, anyone can find most of the information in the Wikipedia entry. But I’ve never read any of these not-in-fact new things but well-established facts explicitly laid out by any major media outlet (although now that I know, I can see hints). I don’t know why. I can’t even begin to see how any reporter wouldn’t trumpet these facts to the world, narrative or no.
China’s supposedly meritocratic test is a fraud.
To begin with, Larmer, like just about any other reporter discussing the gaokao, describes it as a “grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities.”
Wrong. The test score is, technically, the sole criterion for admission. But in China, the test score and the test performance aren’t the same thing.
Testers get additional points literally added to their scores for a number of attributes. China’s 55 ethnic minorities (non-Han) get a boost of up to 30 points , although the specific number varies by province. Athletic and musical certifications appear to be in flux, but still giving some students more points, even though the list of certification sports culled from 70 to 17. Children whose parents died in the military and Chinese living overseas get extra points, and recently the government announced point boosts for morality.
Remember when the University of Michigan used to give students 20 points if they were black, and 12 points if they had a perfect SAT score? Well, imagine those points were just added into the SAT/ACT score. That’s what the Chinese do.
But even after the extra points are allotted, test scores aren’t relevant until the tester’s residence has been factored in. Larmer: “The university quota system also skews sharply against rural students, who are allocated far fewer admissions spots than their urban peers.”
I first understood this to mean that colleges used the same cut scores for everyone, but just accepted fewer rural students, without grasping the implications: city kids have lower cut scores than rural kids.
Xu Peng, the only Maotanchong student to make the cut off score for Tsinghua, where the “minimum score for students from Anhui province taking the science exam was 641.”
Two years earlier, the cutoff score for Tsinghua for a Beijing student was somewhere under 584.
Rachel Lu again:” the lowest qualifying score for a Beijing-based test-taker may be vastly lower than the score required from a student taking the examination in Henan or Jiangsu. [rural provinces]. ”
Of course, don’t make the mistake, as I did, of thinking the cut scores mean the same thing for each student.
Curious about the nature of the studying/memorization the students do (another vague area for Larmer’s piece), I tried to find more information on the gaokao content. The actual gaokao essay questions are usually published each year and they’re….well, insane.
When I finally did find an an actual math question (note: I only linked to the actual chart, which has disappeared. But it was a simple graph.)
it seemed surprisingly easy and then, I realized that it was only for the Beijing test:
Then I went back to the essay questions and it sunk in: the essay questions differed by city.
The gaokao isn’t the same test in every province. Many provinces develop their own custom test and just call it the gaokao.
At which point, I threw up my hands and mentally howled at Larmer, my current proxy for the mainstream American press: you didn’t think this worth mentioning? Or didn’t you know?
If all this is true, then the wealthier province universities use a lower cut score for their residents. But just to be sure, some provinces make an easier test for their residents, so that the rural kids are taking a harder test on which they have to get a higher score. Please, please, please tell me I’m misunderstanding this.
Consider Larmer’s story again in light of this new information. Larmer can’t say definitively who had the best performance without ascertaining whether Yang or Cao got extra points. Both Yang and Cao might both have outscored many students who were admitted to top-tier universities. Cao may or may not have “panicked”, and may not have even done poorly, in an absolute sense. None of this context is provided.
In my last story about Chinese academic fraud, I pointed out that so much money was involved that few people have any incentive to fix the corruption. All the people bellyaching about the American test prep industry should pause for a moment to think about the size of the gaokao enterprise. The original China Youth Daily story focused on Maotanchang’s economic transformation, something Larmer also mentions. Parents are paying small fortunes for tutoring, for cheating devices, for impersonators, for bribes for certificates. All of these services have their own inventory supply chains and personnel. Turn the gaokao into a meritocratic test and what happens to a small but non-trivial chunk of the Chinese economy?
But I’m just stunned at how much worse the Chinese fraud is than I’d ever imagined.
Sure, well-connected parents could probably bribe their kids into college. Sure, urban kids who had better schools that operated longer with educated teachers would likely learn more than those stuck with “substitutes”. Sure, the content was probably absurd and has little relationship to actual knowledge. Sure, the tests were little more than a memory capacity game, with students memorizing essays as well as facts that had no real meaning to them. Without question the testers were engaging in rampant cheating.
But not once had I considered that the test difficulty varied by province, that some kids got affirmative action or athletic points added directly to their score, and worst of all, that a kid from Outer Nowhere who scored a 650 would have no chance at a college that accepted a kid from Beijing with a 500.
Once again, I am distressed to realize that my cynical skepticism has been woefully inadequate to the occasion.
The gaokao isn’t a meritocracy. Millions of kids who live in the wrong province are getting screwed by a test whose great claim to fame is that it will reward applicants strictly by merit. And of course, the more kids who apply to college, the more cut scores and test difficulty will increase–but only for those students from those wrong provinces. Meanwhile, the kids from the “right” provinces have a (relatively) easy time.
In this context, the 2013 gaokao cheating riot takes on a whole new light. If you really want to feel sad, consider the possibility that Yang’s friend, Cao, now working as a migrant, might have scored higher on a harder test than a rich kid in Shanghai.
*Note: in the comments, someone who understands this is (bizarrely, to me) fussed over my use of the “rural/urban” paradigm. I was using the same construct that Brooke Larmer and others have. The commenter seems to think it makes a difference. My point is simpler, and I don’t think obscured for non-Chinese readers. But I caution anyone that I’m utterly unfamiliar with Chinese geography.