The Bizzare World of Entry Exams

Entrance exam scandals show the intense competitiveness found in Chinese education. As the system grows and develops, it seems important to promote growth instead of widespread exclusion.

op-ed

China is obsessed with grueling entrance exams. The most notorious of them all is the gaokao, or college entrance exam. Before this test, there is one to climb to high school from middle school, and even another to go to middle school from elementary.

A recent incident has caused great outrage, but strangely, it did not occur in any of these assessments. It happened in the process of going from kindergarten to elementary school, something intrinsically ridiculous yet sadly, is the least absurd part of the story.

It also tells the rejected children not only that they are not good enough, but that they do not even have the capacity to be someday good enough. It finds them wanting instead of wanted and implies they are not merely incompatible, but permanently defective.

The Chinese government officially forbids “written or academic exams” to enter elementary schools. Predictably, that has never stopped determined schools from cleverly circumventing the rules. In early May, a few private elementary schools held entrance “interviews” for prospective students. Naturally, it not only involved face-to-face interviews, but also brought on oral quizzes in Chinese, English, math, a talent demonstration, and a bewilderingly difficult test on a computer, which is, technically, not a “written” exam.

Still, what caused the outrage was not that the schools skirted rules by de facto testing kids, but that they made an extraordinarily controversial move:

They tested the parents by giving parents logical puzzles to solve. (Picture below)OP-ED-01

This strongly suggests that schools base their acceptance not only on the child’s own ability, but also the predicted intellectual capacity, which the parents provide as a proxy. There is something deeply unsettling about this. Yet, the exact reason why is harder to articulate.

The most common objection is that it is unfair to judge anyone based on circumstances out of their control. This is ironic because consciously or not, we have no problem judging beggars, criminals, poorly behaved children, celebrities, potential mates and many others using very limited information and a simplistic narrative.

Still, when someone else does it, we pretend to be shocked. You disagree?

Allow me ask a simple question: Even if these schools did not openly test the parents, does anybody honestly believe that they would not discriminate behind closed doors? It seems that these schools’ crime is quantifying what is socially taboo: open, and shameless discrimination.

I think the reason we feel such swift and intense disgust is far more complicated and subtle. We all have skeletons in our closets and deep down we probably feel inferior in one way or another. It is part of the human condition. The reason we are offended here is perhaps because these schools are exposing our skeletons, laying bare the insecurities that we hold dear and close to our hearts.

It also tells the rejected children not only that they are not good enough, but that they do not even have the capacity to be someday good enough. It finds them wanting instead of wanted and implies they are not merely incompatible, but permanently defective. We are offended because the school is imposing unsavory realities of adulthood upon our children, stripping them of whatever innocence remains. We resent it because it is ruthlessly honest, and even we, as grownups, are not adult enough to handle that kind of honesty, much less our children.

Aside from being ethically questionable, there are more rational reasons to reject this practice, even if it is legally permissible (they are for-profit private schools, after all). An exam is only as good as its predictive value of future success and it remains highly debatable if these exams are practically meaningful. Whatever useful, though limited, insight one might glean from looking at parents’ traits is far outweighed by the divisive and bigoted attitude it promotes. The message it sends to our children is reductionist and Darwinian and is antithetical to the very purpose of education.

Our increasingly global and diverse society requires a far more nuanced approach to education. The next generation will shape the world to come. To do this, they’ll need more than just DNA and a test score. If we want to live in a compassionate world, we need to instill and promote positivity, not thinly veiled intolerance.

We can do better. We owe it to them.

Category Op-Ed