Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Test-based Education

on June 27, 2014

Like it or not, we were now immersed in a totally different type of education.  No essay-type exam any more. Real essays themselves were formulaic. The entire education system was geared towards exams and tests. National exams determined whether a student could move from middle school to high school, and from high school to college or university. They determined which high schools or universities the student was eligible for, and which major the student could enter. Up to 1968, such exams also determined which middle school an elementary school graduate could enter.

Sequestered for 7 days and 7 nights, testers slept in the same cubicle that they tested in.

Sequestered for 7 days and 7 nights, testers slept in the same cubicle that they tested in.

I suppose the root of this exam-based education grew from the ancient Chinese system of civil service qualifying examinations. Starting from as early as the Han dynasty and officially sanctioned by the Tang dynasty, scholars, regardless of the duration of his education or who his teacher had been, could sit for regional, provincial and national exams. Top scorers would then win official government positions. Although the system was supposedly abolished as of 1905, its remnants still infiltrate many aspects of Chinese life and bureaucracy.  My father himself, when he applied for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had to sit for an entrance exam called the Higher Exams.

Imperial exam in session

Imperial exam in session

As a result of this exam-based system, textbooks were written more in a review or exam preparation format than in an explanatory format. They were lightweight and printed on cheap paper, so students could underline (the highlighter had yet to be invented), circle or make notes in margins. The tests were numerous and easy to grade. There were quizzes, “small tests”, chapter tests, monthly tests, “big tests”, mock tests, and semester tests. Not to mention the dreaded actual National High School Entrance Exam.

As Third Year Junior High students, we were not only learning our curriculum for the year, but also reviewing the material of the last two years, and preparing for the national exam with a series of mock exams. To say that the two of us were overwhelmed would be an understatement. After the initial shock of the  4% in my first Chinese test, I slowly became inured to failing grades. Anything else was better. Slowly, my actual grades (not review tests or mock tests) moved from the tens to the twenties, then the thirties and forties. English came on top since we already had had two years of British English in Paris, moving to American English was only a hop and a skip. Then came History since the syllabus that year was World History, namely Modern European History, which was comparatively familiar. Although I must say, hard-headed teachers played an important role in how slowly we improved our grades.

When asked which two rivers bordered Mesopotamia, Saadia decided to write the answers in English (which the teacher had allowed). In French, these rivers are named Le Tigre and L’Euphrate. Now, translating these into English would be the Tiger and the Euphrate. The teacher could not accept them because the spelling was off. And she added sneeringly in the margin, in big red characters, “This is a river, not a tiger!” We finally looked this up and found that for some reason, the English name was spelled in Latin, Tigris, which, of course, does mean tiger too. But too late, teachers there never went back on their grading, probably because it would open the door to 60 times three or four classes of students asking for grade alterations. And that teacher probably did not know Latin anyway.

map of mesopotamiaAs for me, I tried to answer in Chinese, but had a really hard time with that too. For example the word Italy is transliterated into “Ee-Da-Lee”. Now each syllable sound could be written in a number of different ways, each with a different meaning. I’m not sure who determined which character to use, probably the first journalist or government official who ever had to translate that particular word, way back when.  But basically, History is about learning and understanding facts. A kind merciful teacher should have allowed me to misspell a few words, since I got so few points on my tests already, right? So I wrote the “Ee” of Italy as 義 (honor, integrity), instead of 意 (meaning, intent). Big red cross, minus 4 point. I don’t suppose the Italians ever minded being full of integrity, instead of being full of meaning.WWI, Italy

Math was a real nightmare. My love of algebra sustained me through the onslaught of Chinese math for a while. Whereas in France, we had just landed on the shores of simple algebraic equations with one measly little x sitting in an obvious lonely position, here, we were met with a multitude of them, not to mention their brethren the y’s, z’s, a’s, b’s, c’s, m’s, and n’s. They came in regular sizes and in smaller sizes as part of indices, you know, sitting next to the square or cube sign… And they came as part of decimals and fractions as well. Oh, the fractions! I knew that fraction line as a single bar,  whose importance was to lie on the main line on the notebook, between the two horizontal bars of the equal sign. Here, the fraction line had been elevated to an architectural element. It defined the ground floor from the basement floors and the upper floors. Algebraic fractions were a lot like Sim Tower creations. Entire commercial blocks with multi-floor hotels on top, and several layers of parking floors under. Plus and minus signs, or times and divide signs, were placed strategically like traffic lights between these giant structures. And living in these hotels were those italicized letters and their companions, the digits.

I was unable to find an illustration anywhere close to our algebra homework. No one today relishes anymore constructing those elaborate and ridiculous stacks of fractions within fractions with indices and roots thrown in for good measure...

Sim Tower: This is what our algebra homework reminds me of. I was unable to find an illustration anywhere close to our algebra homework. No one today relishes anymore constructing those elaborate and ridiculous stacks of fractions within fractions with indices and roots thrown in for good measure…

Imagine having to reduce an entire city to an elegant little 2- or 3-piece equation. Not realizing we needed someone to teach us and coach us on the gaps in our Math knowledge, we felt very stupid that others could do what we could not. I started developing a fear of indices and letters lurking in denominators.

During the review tests, we also had to answer questions on geometry, which had been taught some time over the two previous years. Gone were the precision drawing sessions using a triangle square, a compass and a protractor. Now I had to prove that certain angles were equal to others using rules I had never learned. Chinese examiners do not believe in asking students simple straightforward questions. If it is not complicated, it is not worth asking. And so, our geometry proofs, despite the simplified notation, ran for tens of lines. I actually did enjoy them, despite diving through a crash course of Euclidean axioms.

geometry problemOur class also had to take an accounting class, which was my first introduction to such a science. It pretty much consisted of columns of debit and credit numbers that we had to add and balance at the bottom of the page. Having never taken abacus in my life, I could not see the depth and history of Accountancy in China, and wondered why adding and subtracting columns of numbers had to be taught separately from Math.

The best illustration on the difference between French and Chinese education occurred at the end of a school day, on my way out to the front yard, together with a few thousand other students, when I overheard a classmate calling out to another girl from a different class, “Hey, how many kilos of math homework have you got today?” Our homework was usually a stack of handouts that averaged about ten problems per sheet. I dreamily reminisced about the day my class of Cinquieme went on strike when the teacher dared assign THREE problems…


One Response to “Test-based Education”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    Yes, I recall the immense frustration of knowing the answer but having to live with the petty grading whims of Chinese bureaucrat teachers! Grr…! But I do agree that the Chinese curriculum is much more advanced in Math and the mass of homework one has to do in the evening. Never mind that most of our classmates attended private evening tutoring classes offered by the teachers, who earned extra pay on top of their regular daytime jobs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *