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.