High Test Scores, Low Ability

Updated December 3, 2010, 01:45 PM From New York Times

Yong Zhao is the University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University. The author of “Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization,” he often blogs about education issues.

There’s a frustrating paradox in Chinese education. On the one hand, millions of college graduates cannot find a job — at least a desirable job that pays substantially more than what a migrant worker makes. On the other hand, businesses that want to pay a lot more can’t seem to find qualified employees.

A McKinsey study found that fewer than 10 percent of Chinese graduates are considered suitable to work at multinational companies based in China.

Multinational companies in China are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates for their positions. According to a recent survey of U.S.-owned enterprises conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, 37 percent of the companies that responded said that finding talent was their biggest operational problem. A separate study by McKinsey Quarterly found that 44 percent of the executives in Chinese companies reported that insufficient talent was the biggest barrier to their global ambitions.

The explanation: a test-oriented educational environment.

China invented the keju system, which used tests to select government officials. It was a great invention because it enabled talents from across the society to join the ruling class regardless of their family backgrounds. Hence, a great meritocracy could be created. But it evolved into a nightmare for China as the system gradually changed into one that tested memorization of Confucian classics.

China's college entrance examAssociated Press Teachers sorting college entrance exams in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in June 2009.

Keju is dead now but its spirit is very alive in China today, in the form of gaokao, or the College Entrance Exam. It’s the only exam that matters since it determines whether students can attend college and what kind of colleges they can attend. Because of its life-determining nature, gaokao has become the “baton” that conducts the whole education orchestra. Students, parents, teachers, school leaders and even local government officials all work together to get good scores. From a very young age, children are relieved of any other burden or deprived of opportunity to do anything else so they can focus on getting good scores.

The result is that Chinese college graduates often have high scores but low ability. Those who are good at taking tests go to college, which also emphasizes book knowledge. But when they graduate, they find out that employers actually want much more than test scores. That is why another study by McKinsey found that fewer than 10 percent of Chinese college graduates would be suitable for work in foreign companies.

Chinese educators are well aware of the problems with the gaokao system and have been trying to move away from the excessive focus on testing. But seeking other valid indicators of strong academic records will take time, especially in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Topics: China, Education, colleges

16 Readers’ Comments

December 3rd, 2010 4:21 am
Unfortunately I have to concur with this assessment. Having hired and fired more than a few”straight out of university” employees, my experience has been mostly negative. They come in with high marks and high wage demands but can’t complete even the simplest real world tasks. They might be able to solve math problems quickly but real world problems leave them frozen.
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December 3rd, 2010 7:46 am
Our own politicians and the U.S. education establishment might benefit from reading “High Test Scores, Low Ability.” This is what happens when you teach children how to pass tests instead of how to think.
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December 3rd, 2010 9:47 am
I think every country has this problem. Practical approach to fundamental concepts lacks in most of the colleges except for few top tier universities. As a result, students who got the deserving chance to study in top institutions shine in innovation and others had to run around various corporates for jobs & better salary rather than self-employment or starting a own company/business.
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December 3rd, 2010 10:20 am
I would agree. When I studied abroad, I had tutors in China that were startlingly good at what they did, offering tips on how to memorize vocabulary or study for tests. When we went out for drinks though, it was really startling how insulated they were from how the actual world works.

Many middle-class Chinese kids from the city have never worked, or held a job until after they finish college. They don’t date, socialize, or fraternize during their school years, so when they start working they go on binges or stumble over things we dealt with when we were kids.

At the Chinese engineering firm I interned at, the engineers acted more like children than serious professionals.

Video Games, dating drama, and binge drinking have severe effects on their work habits and work ethic.These things affect Western workers too of course, but honestly, most of us learned how to deal with rejection, getting dumped, getting wasted, or playing too many video games in our teenage years. Chinese kids have had no such luxury, and that behavior comes out when they start working.

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The Ryan
December 3rd, 2010 10:31 am
I couldn’t agree more with Jack. It is an unfortunate reality that has shown up time after time. And what’s worse is that even experienced hires and domestic managers often disappoint as well. I don’t walk in with a bias to bring in an assignee or expat, but that is often where I end up after I have wasted my time interviewing others who come in with high hopes and high demands.Something is not right with their system.
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December 3rd, 2010 10:35 am
This certainly represents a warning message to the increasing numbers of politicians and education systems who seem to lean ever heavier on standardized testing to measure teaching performance. It’s like using a thermometer to gauge whether or not your soup is any good to eat.
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Washington, DC
December 3rd, 2010 10:47 am
I wouldn’t say that top colleges in the US are any better at teaching real world skills than Chinese universities. They emphasize theory far more than they emphasize practical skills. I should know, since I went to top-tier undergrad and grad programs in America. What is evident, though, ,is that the top colleges in the US attract the cream of the crop of a system that teaches creative-problem solving in conjunction with book-smarts. The top end of middle schools and high schools (especially the public magnet schools) teach children from the very beginning to question, interact, and cultivate strong problem-solving skills. These children then end up going to top universities and major in philosophy, economics or other very esoteric subjects, and come out establishing companies or becoming highly productive professional workers. But it’s the groundwork in middle and high school that alllows for this, and not the universities themselves that do the bulk of the work in forming the creative class in the US.
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December 3rd, 2010 10:50 am
This analysis is so wrong that I do not know where I should to start to rebut. First of all, the problem of China higher education is not Gaokao. The entrance exam is vigorous and fair to everybody. It is a much better system that the US SAT exams. The US college admission system is plagued with so many corruptions: subjective, often with personal prejudice assessment by a reader, all sorts of political and financial agenda, favoritism, racial and ethnic preference. Based on my teaching experience in a major US research university, an average chinese high school graduate can easily outperform an American counterpart in math and science in average.

Now here is the problem: Most of the post-doc fellows from China in my lab appear very weak and inappropriate trained, even from some of the most elite Chinese Universities, at least in the beginning. I sometimes wonder whether Chinese are running some diploma mills. The problems of Chinese college or graduate school graduates are not because of GaoKao, but with its college education curriculum and training for the students. These problems lie with the quality of its college professors and administrators, not of high school. They should reform the University education system with more vigorous screening of qualified faculties and programs, but should keep its college admission system.

You grossly misdiagnose the disease.

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CT Teacher
Greenwich, CT
December 3rd, 2010 10:55 am
Two conclusions can be reached. One, that China has a strong need for laborers, and recognizes that need with pay that is equitable with that of college graduates. Two, that college in China is not preparing young people for the working world. In the US, postindustrial malaise has devalued the worth of manual labor, and universities are struggling with the recent emphasis in K-12 schools on tests and data rather than thought and innovation. Another reason to dump the Race to the Top mentality.
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Ken Spud
December 3rd, 2010 10:56 am
My hope is that my comments will be taken in the broad context of all of these contributors. Several years ago while seeking to assist an ‘economic development zone’ in Guangzhou to promote itself abroad, I was asked if I could help them to translate a document on education reform. I was happy to accept. However, as I pointed out to them at the time, the first sentence of the draft proposal stated “we absolutely must reform our education, but (a very big ‘but’), we must stick to the standards already inherent in the established education system.” Is that possible? The straight answer is No!

Let me point out from first hand experience some fatal weakneses in the Chinese system. I think that it will help in understanding why “no vacancies” are widespread in the job market.

The typical college professor in this rapidly expanded university environment is a recent graduate with a bachelors degree in “something” They have absolutely no training as a teacher in higher education.

On the research level, graft is so rampant that most of the graduate students who have communicated their concerns to me are swamped in a morass of lack of support or direction for their research: are swept into a vortex of graft as unwilling participants by demands from their “committee members” to get expense vouchers for them so that they (the committee member, i.e. those people who will be reviewing their disertation or thesis) can get compensated by the same university for doing nothing; and who are manipulated by those ‘committee members’ to commit gross acts of plagerism or, more repugnant, who constantly change the topic for the graduate paper “to suit” the demands of a private company who is paying the university for original work on another matter.

University campus growth has exceeded the growth of the Chinese economy as a whole, from 1,000,000 students 10 years ago to over 10,000,000 today – 2010. Can you imagine the quality of a college/university system which has expanded as rapidly (over 1,000 persent !) in less than ten years. Many reputable (formerly – also called ‘top tier’ by some of these contributors) universities have allowed their ‘good’ names to be used by private educators giving the impression that a new institution of, say 5,000 to 15,000 students is an integral part of that ‘good’ institution.

Professor Qiang Zha, in his commentary says “This widening gap inevitably (has) led to deterioration of the quality of higher education in many colleges, especially the newly created ones but also the private ones, which suffer from a severe shortage of qualified and experienced teaching staff.

An interesting sidebar is that the students who prevail in Local and National Television competitions in English are most often NOT english majors. This is due in large part to the fact that those who do win have been exposed to a much broader range of materials and thinking than those who are English majors.

Professor Yong Zhao states that, “Students, parents, teachers, school leaders and even local government officials all work together to get good scores. (Does this sound a little like “No Child Left Behind”?) From a very young age, children are relieved of any other burden or deprived of opportunity to do anything else (just) so they can focus on getting good scores.” Recent developments are forcing the authorities to make changes because Hong Kong, Singapor and Taiwan universities are now recruiting students from China directly. This is forcing the ‘best universities’ in China to compete and it is this competition which has open up a very wide door now taking place, for direct recruitment by ‘the best” universities. This is enabling those univesities to look for students with ability beyond “testing ability”, which correspondingly enables student to partially escape from the rigors of testing for testing’s sake. A student who did not do so well in “Markist Ideology” or “Chinese literature”, or even “English” has a chance to be recognized for her/his math capability. In addition, as some media have reported of successes by students who have been admitted directly into Harvard, they might even be considered because of their demonstrated leadership in civic affairs or creative thinking.

I do not mince words here, because I am constantly in the trenches trying to help great students from China to escape this system. It must be reformed if China is to move into the wider world of academics on the international stage. If they do not, they will be condemned eternally to play second fiddle. As their own nationally recognized scientists have said on national TV, we will not see a native Chinese win a nobel prize until we do, and that, they say, might be 30 to 50 years.

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New York
December 3rd, 2010 11:00 am
Gaokao, Mandarin for “No child left behind”.
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Atlanta, GA
December 3rd, 2010 11:01 am
I think tests of general aptitude can be a better predictor of employment success than a college degree. What gives tests a bad name are tests of learned skills, which allow cramming. Organizations that use aptitude tests, like the armed forces in the United States, tend not to have too much trouble identifying those who can be taught to perform a skill. And let’s face it–most of the corporate jobs in the United States do not require skills that are explicitly taught in school (other than language skills, which can be measured by aptitude), and can be taught quickly to bright individuals.

I hate to be elitist, but I share a college degree with people who can’t even write a complete sentence, or master rudimentary Excel. How am I supposed to indicate to an employer that I can do these things if they’ll crumple up GRE and SAT scores indicating math and language competence, and colleges will continue to discount them in their application process?

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262 Old Kelsey Point Road, Westbrook, CT 06498
December 3rd, 2010 11:15 am
I appreciate Dr. Zhao’s “frustrating paradox in Chinese education” all too well. And the newly minted wealthy Chinese parents who fret about their children’s future know it all too well. That is why I and other western educators, are being actively courted to bring “Western education methods” to Chinese high schools in a growing trend to prepare tens of thousands of Chinese high school students for US university seats.

Here in Wuhan, a city of 8 million residents in Hubei Province, a program operated by Central China Normal University allows parents of top “public school” students to pay a premium for an all-English US university preparatory program modeled after a private US secondary school, beginning in senior grade one and running the full course of the students’ high school career. These students and their parents have chosen, while in middle school, to “opt out” of gaokao, the Chinese national university admissions test that has been the underpinning of the Chinese education system’s reputation for rigorous academic performance.

As programs like these proliferate in response to the pressures exerted by China’s nouveau riche and concern that their children escape the trap of “high scores” and “low ability,” a perfect storm seems to be in the making back in the US. While change comes hard and slow in the Chinese university system, anxious Chinese parents are marshaling their resources to prepare students for what looks like a tsunami of applications in the coming years for ever more precious seats in good US universities. Today’s US students, whose parents’ jobs may have been lost to globalization, may very well face the prospects of losing their seats in a top US university to students whose parents gained from those lost American jobs.

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Asheville, NC
December 3rd, 2010 11:17 am
When I was living in China, I was hiring an assistant and the resumes poured in touting their English proficiency, yet when it came to the interviews, very few could communicate with me. They’d passed the tests without learning to speak on a rudimentary level. Also, once I’d hired people, they weren’t that curious about learning the business and if something else came along, they’d just leave. The odds that an assistant will stay a year are very slim. Which is not to say that all Chinese college grads are lazy. I hired and met a lot of very bright and curious young people — but only after a good bit of digging.

The teach to test system has also had a very big effect on innovation. If all you think about is learning it the way you are told, you don’t think outside the box and that is where innovation comes from. I think it explains why China is great at copying but not so great at invention (at least in the last century.)

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New York, NY
December 3rd, 2010 11:42 am
Compare this with our “No Child Gets Ahead System”.
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UC Graduate
Los Angeles
December 3rd, 2010 1:47 pm
This is a very insightful essay. In the very near future, there is no doubt that the Chinese economy will move up the commodity chain and expand the service sector of the economy. When it does, it will soak up a huge number of college graduates who have communication, administrative, and social skills. As experiences in advanced economy shows, college graduates are necessary not only because of their technical skill but because of their communication, cultural, and inter-personal skills. It’s a good bet that jobs that requires written communication, independent organizational skills, and the ability to negotiate complex organizations will be staffed by college graduates not because people love them but because the college degree is the most reliable and expedient indicator that a person is likely to have these skills. If you doubt this, try and hire an American without a college degree and have them write a business letter. In this context, the value of the college degree for the Chinese is not going to be self-evident right now or even in five years. As in other countries–both developed and developing–the value of the college degree will accrue over decades as both the economy of China changes and as the inherent value of education manifests itself at the level of individuals and society. While the new college graduate in Xian might have a tough time finding a job right now, will this person have a more secure economic life when s/he is 40? Absolutely–and s/he will be much more likely to be engaged socially, be a better parent, and perhaps even demand political change. One of the greatest changes from 1960 to 2010 has been the rising ascendency of college graduates in shaping the world (the decline of the power of industrial unions and farmers and the rise of the managerial and professional class should be seen in that light). China will be no exception–with the growing numbers of college graduates, in time, they will capture the nation’s agenda and impose their will.
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