How high stakes exams create hurdles that many Chinese students will never overcome.
Debates about Chinese education feature regularly in the global media, particularly since students in Shanghai ranked first in the world in the 2009 and 2012 student assessment surveys from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The results of the survey—which tested the abilities of fifteen-year-old students in 65 countries worldwide—led some pundits to argue that Chinese educational methods, especially in math and science, should be exported internationally so that students elsewhere can “keep up” with their Chinese age-mates. At the same time, however, others within China and abroad have strongly criticized the Chinese education system, arguing that it places too much pressure on young people, relies on rote memorization, and forecloses student creativity and independent thinking.
This image of the test-taking, studious young person is hardly representative of all Chinese youth.
Notably, both sides of these debates are predicated on an image of China’s high-performing students. Indeed, the dominant image of China’s youth in both China and the West is of studious, academic young people, with their heads buried in books. I was often told in China that this is simply what kids are expected to do every day; As many Chinese parents informed me when I first began researching Chinese education: “All Chinese kids do is study.”
Yet in reality this image of the test-taking, studious young person is hardly representative of all Chinese youth, for it erases almost half of the nation’s adolescents who never even make it to high school. A large proportion of China’s youth—up to 50% in some localities — fail to pass through a crucial bottleneck in the Chinese educational system: the High School Entrance Examination (HSEE), a high-stakes standardized exam that all graduating ninth graders must take before they can move on to senior high school. Once students fail this exam, their academic careers are finished.
Most students in urban China receive nine years of free schooling. After ninth grade, all students who want to continue studying must take the HSEE. Students who pass the HSEE then attend academic senior high schools (putong gaozhong) where they spend the next three years (grades 10-12) preparing to take the University Entrance Exam (UEE) at the end of year 12.
Students who fail the HSEE have few options. Students from poor families may drop out and enter the work force as unskilled labourers, while those from wealthy families may enroll in private schools or even move abroad for their secondary education. For the rest, some kind of vocational or technical schooling is their only choice. My research was based on a year of ethnographic research in two vocational secondary schools in Nanjing, a provincial capital 180 miles west of Shanghai. I conducted my fieldwork there in order to understand the social and material consequences of failure for China’s youth.
In a context where moral goodness is linked to academic achievement, youth who fail at academic tasks are often assumed to be immoral or simply bad people.
What my research assistants and I found was that the vast majority of students enrolled in these two schools had entered vocational studies as a kind of last resort. Unable to continue academic studies that might allow them to test into a university, they and their families had settled for vocational training in courses that held little interest. The students we met were all from working-class or poor rural backgrounds. None came from families with the social or cultural capital to investigate any better options for their children.
In the broader social context, these young people were at best structurally invisible, and at worst were despised or even feared. In a society that holds a dominant ideology of youth as studious, industrious, and focused on accumulating academic credentials, students who flunk out of the academic stream by age sixteen are publicly disdained as lazy, stupid, or both. And in a context where moral goodness is linked to academic achievement, youth who fail at academic tasks are often assumed to be immoral or simply bad people.
Vocational students were therefore usually blamed for their failure, even by their own teachers. But buried in the discourse of failure and blame we discovered a little-known fact: the HSEE is designed to fail up to half of the ninth grade students who take it. Although passing rates are pre-set by each municipality and vary by locality, China’s central Ministry of Education sets national targets for how many students should pass the HSEE overall. For the past decade, the Ministry of Education has targeted a national 50:50 ratio between enrollments in vocational and academic high schools. Although national statistics are very hard to come by, statistically, up to half of the nation’s youth will fail the HSEE, because the exam is intended to fail a pre-determined portion of the students who take it. Blaming the students for their own predicament erases the role of state policy in dropping a predetermined percentage from every ninth grade cohort out of the academic stream.
The ramifications of failing the HSEE go beyond social disapprobation and blame—the effects are serious and life-long. Once students fail the HSEE, they have no academic future, for the academic stream is closed off to them after year 9. These students are ineligible to take the University Entrance Examination when they finish year 12. Although there are an increasing number of tertiary adult education programs in China, for the vast majority of students, a college education will never be an option after they fail the HSEE.
This, of course, influences the students’ future jobs. White collar employment in China today requires a university degree; without even a high school diploma, these students are destined to spend their working lives in the rural, industrial, or urban service-sector economies. Unless a lucky few find ways to strike it rich as entrepreneurs, most are consigned to a life in the working classes once they fail this exam.
Increasingly, researchers are concerned with social mobility in China, and questions abound about whether or not the benefits of the recent economic boom are creating harder boundaries between the rich and the poor. Invisible in the discourse of growing inequality are the tens of millions of youth who are labeled “failures” at as young an age as sixteen, and the ways the testing systems and moral ideology condemn them to particular social structures in the future. What will happen to this generation in the coming years?
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