The Elementary School Entrance Exam

* note: this is a longer version of the published article 

China is obsessed with grueling entrance exams. They are promoted as a path to meritocracy by providing a level playing field, where everyone has the same opportunity. Exams can be taken too far, however, and a recent incident has created outrage, even for China. The biggest one is the gaokao, or the college entrance exam. Before that, there is an exam to get into high school from middle school, and another one to get into middle school from elementary school. The offending incident did not happen in any of these, however. It happened in an exam to get from kindergarten to elementary school, something intrinsically ridiculous yet sadly, the least absurd part of the story.

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

If one were to accept the very notion of an entrance exam for elementary school, which many Chinese parents begrudgingly do, then these are simply logical extremes of that concept, and not offensive in and of itself. What caused the outrage was not that the schools skirted the rules by de facto testing the kids, but by making an extraordinarily controversial move:

They tested the parents.

There gave parents logical puzzles like these to solve:

There were questionnaires asking not only about the education and socioeconomic background of the parents, but also the paternal and maternal grandparents:

A certain school asked the parents to write an 800-word essay on the spot about education, which is extreme but might be defendable. One school went overboard and reportedly didn’t accept the kids if the parents were fat, a practice with ugly implications:

These actions strongly suggest that they would base their acceptance not only on the child’s own ability, but also the predicted intellectual capacity, using the parents as a proxy. Most people, including many of you reading this, feel disgusted and outraged about this practice. There is something deeply unsettling about this, yet the exact reason 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 others all day long, based on limited information and a simplistic narrative. We talk the talk unabashedly, yet few of us actually walk the walk.

All but the most naïve of us realize that given the same qualifications, people with certain traits will be favored. Right or wrong, it’s reality. Interviews serve more than to understand the person; it also serves to confirm and strengthen our biases, whether we care to admit it or not. Yet when someone else discriminates, we pretend to be shocked. Disagree? Let me ask a simple question then: 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 their crime is quantifying what is socially taboo, and discriminating openly instead of covertly. It is not fair, but not substantially different than anything else in life. Cynical? Yes, but largely accurate.

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 all feel inferior and insecure in one way or another. It’s part of the human condition. The reason we are offended is that by testing the parents and asking unsavory questions, the schools are exposing our skeletons, laying bare the insecurities that we hold dear and close to our hearts.

Growing up we are taught that we can be the next Michael Jordan or Stephen Hawking, if only we worked hard enough. As we approach adulthood, we realize that simply isn’t the case. Given sufficient effort we can achieve competence, proficiency, and maybe expertise – but rarely greatness. You can’t will yourself to be 6’8”, no matter how hard you try. One day we mentally file it away with Santa Claus, and keep this depressing thought private, because it’s socially unacceptable to point out that the Emperor is naked. Ironically, we tell our kids the very same lie that once inspired us. And there it is – we are offended because the school is exposing our lie, brutally imposing the unsavory realities of adulthood onto kindergartners, and stripping them of whatever innocence remains.

It tells the rejected children that they are not only not good enough, but that they do not even have the capacity to be good enough. It finds them wanting instead of wanted, and implies that they are not merely incompatible, but defective. It is brutally humiliating and devastating, similar to what a heartbroken lover experiences – the agonizing realization that one can never be good enough. We resent that this undoubtedly adult emotion is unnecessarily and prematurely forced upon a child. But more than that, we resent it because it is ruthlessly honest, and we, as grownups, are not adult enough to handle that kind of honesty, much less our children.

Having said that, I think that 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). The utility of an exam is only as good as its predictive value of future success, and it remains highly debatable if these exams are useful in that sense. Whatever limited insight one might glean from looking at parents’ traits, if any, seems 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. For the school, if the ultimate end is to boast about high test scores, then choosing students become like picking race horses; the student is neither the customer nor the product, but more like a substrate – breathing meat that helps deliver scores. There may be real market incentives for the school to do so, however this is myopic and demeaning to our kids. These very kids will shape our world to come, and they will be guided by the values we instill in them. If we start with dehumanization and bigotry, then it’s unreasonable to expect a diverse and compassionate world to come. We may not deserve it, but we owe it to the next generation to do better.

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