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Ever wonder how Chinese students blow the roof off international tests? If you read Yong Zhao’s wonderful book Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and the Worst) Education System in the World, you know why. Test-prep, test-prep, test-prep. Officials at OECD, which sponsors the PISA international tests, insist that test-prep has nothing to do with it, but Yong Zhao proves they are wrong. One of the riveting stories in his book is about a small town–Maotanchang–whose main industry is a test-prep factory. Yong Zhao warns that the Chinese testing regime produces high test scores, but it is authoritarian and crushes creativity, individuality, originality, and risk-taking.
The New York Times Magazine contains a gripping story by Brook Larmer about what happens at the test-prep factory in Maotanchang. There are more students in the school than there are residents in the town. The students start school every day at 6:20 a.m., and their last class ends at 10:50 p.m. Preparing for the big exam that determines whether they will gain admission to a college, whether it will be a first-tier college or something less is all-consuming, because their exam score determines their life path. The story focuses on a student named Yang, who is hoping to pass the college entrance exam (the “gaokao”).
China’s treadmill of standardized tests has produced, along with high levels of literacy and government control, some of the world’s most scarily proficient test-takers. Shanghai high-school students have dominated the last two cycles of the Program for International Student Assessment exam, leading more than one U.S. official to connect this to a broader “Sputnik moment” of coming Chinese superiority. Yet even as American educators try to divine the secret of China’s test-taking prowess, the gaokao is coming under fire in China as an anachronism that stifles innovative thought and puts excessive pressure on students. Teenage suicide rates tend to rise as the gaokao nears. Two years ago, a student posted a shocking photograph online: a public high-school classroom full of students hunched over books, all hooked up to intravenous drips to give them the strength to keep studying….
For a town that turns test preparation into a mechanical act of memorization and regurgitation, Maotanchang remains a place of desperate faith and superstition. Most students have a talisman of some sort, whether it’s red underwear (red clothing is believed to be lucky), shoes from a company called Anta (their check-mark logo is reminiscent of a correct answer) or a pouch of “brain rejuvenating” tea bought from vendors outside the school gates. The town’s best-selling nutritional supplements are called Clear Mind and Six Walnuts (the nuts are considered mind-boosters in large part because they resemble brains). Yang’s parents did not seem especially superstitious, but they paid high rent to live close to the mystical tree and its three-foot-high pile of incense ash. “If you don’t pray to the tree, you can’t pass,” Yang says, repeating a local saying.
Just up the alley from Yang’s room, I met a fortune teller sitting on a stool next to a canvas chart. For $3.40, the man in the ill-fitting pinstripe suit could predict the future: marriage, children, death — and gaokao scores. “Business is good these days,” he said with a broken smile. An older man in an argyle sweater and a Chairman Mao haircut watched our exchange. This was Yang Qiming, a retired chemistry teacher, who told me he had seen Maotanchang grow from an impoverished school of 800 students, when he joined the faculty in 1980, to the juggernaut it is today — a remarkable transformation during a period when most rural schools have withered. Even so, he grumbled about the deadening effects of rote learning. “With all this studying, the kids’ brains become rigid,” he said. “They know how to take a test, but they can’t think for themselves.”