Chinese Keju Exam Angst…with a tangent

Every now an again it’s nice to check to see how non-US cultures handled education. A great example is the Chinese Civil Service or Keju exam. Lasting from the 7th century AD to the last dynasty in the early 20th century, this was an exam which determined if a person was academically qualified enough to become a well-paid government administrator/bureaucrat. Today we have counterparts like the SAT (how good a college you can go to), MCAT (how good a medical school) and the LSAT (law school).
On the positive side, exams like these theoretically allow anyone with the resources and ability to learn enough material to pass to become credentialed. But Dr. Hoi Suen from Penn State feels that this kinds of high stakes exam will inevitably lead to problems.

“With approximately 1,300 years of history and extensive official and unofficial records that were kept throughout this period, China’s is the only examination system that can provide us with a glimpse of what might be some long-lasting chronic problems of high-stakes, large-scale testing programs as well as of the efficacy of attempts to remove unintended negative consequences” — Suen (2006)

The Problems

So what were they? Pretty much what you get with the SAT/MCAT:

  • Keju test handbooks similar to the Kaplan handbooks
  • Violent or suicidal behavior from students who either failed the exam or were studying for the exam
  • Massive cheating in the form of
    • students memorizing entire essays and poems to copy down later
    • bribing test proctors and graders – sometimes they looked for “key phrases” in essays so graders would know who to score highly
    • hiring fake test takers
    • bringing in crib notes
  • Security implementations such as body searches, isolated exam rooms, anonymous forms and physical punishment for convicted cheaters.

Baton Effect

In addition to these issues, Suen also found something called the baton effect – which basically says that Chinese society focused only on learning material on the test, which in this case meant literature and poetry at the expense of medicine or technology. The baton effect shows that high-stakes testing actually can influence what people learn.
Think of how many people today who complain that we don’t study literature and poetry enough because the US students are too concerned with studying “for-profit” fields like accounting, medicine or the law.
So the problem may not be that testing will inhibit education, but that it can be TOO influential. You ideally want a test that matches what your society really needs, and yes there are plenty of diverging views out there.

Any Solutions?

Of course, China and the U.S. are not the only high-stakes testers out there. Most countries today have some sort of high-stakes test for university admissions and some used to have them for high school. And I think it’s safe to say that once a test becomes high stakes enough to count, you will get the cheating and the destructive psychological behaviors described. I’ve heard great academic dishonesty stories from some of my non-US colleagues.
But what are the alternatives? Traditionally the alternative has been “the old boy’s network” or whatever variant you have in mind. I need to hire someone for a task and I check in with my social network to see what “qualified” applicants are out there. Actually, when the population is small scale, this might actually be the best solution.
But once your population gets too large, caste think tends to set in. Anyone not born in the right circles would somehow have to find a patron (possible, but not easy).
Is there a third way that’s more equitable? Maybe the ultimate solution is just to open more pathways to success. We’re not all meant to be doctors or lawyers or government workers, so why should we all be trying? Wouldn’t a system that rewarded something other than academic performance be interesting?
For instance, a highly-skilled welder may actually be well-paid and know quite a bit about metallurgy, gas chemistry and structural engineering. Welders may even need to receive continuous training to keep up with the latest techniques…Some welders even wield their torches to become metal craftsmen (and their art may command high prices).
But how many professors or lawyers want their children to grow up to become welders? (Actually see P.S. 2 for my reasons why not).

Class and High Stakes Exams

All of this speculation leads me to think that the biggest reasons for the problems encountered by the Keju and the SAT/LSAT/MCAT is that they are entries for people to gain or maintain a relatively higher social status. Hence there is much more competition in them (as well as a very strong desire to circumvent the system).
There are actually lots of other high stakes certification exams like the CPP (Certified Payroll Professional) and ones for welding, yet I don’t think the issues of academic dishonesty are quite as prevalent. They’re challenging, but not as many people take them.


P.S. 1 – An interesting development recently is that “chef” has become a much more glamorous profession thanks to the rise of cooking channels. One person admitted that he was glad to have found cooking…because he really hated school.
P.S. 2 – Another annoying quasi universal is that societies often set the highest social class to those who do the least work. Cognitive labor is always above manual labor, and no labor at all can be the best. I think that part of it is that manual labor can be a bit dangerous (welding accidents are more likely than attorney accidents). And it is cleaner, which counts for a lot in our subconscious mammal brains….still many societies have missed out on key technical innovations because the philosophers “didn’t want to get their hands dirty” doing actual experiments.

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