Spinning the grades

This is a hyper-competitive, meritocratic* culture (if that’s even a word); some describe it by saying that in Taiwan, children start being evaluated the moment they’re born. One of our friends says that test-taking is Taiwan’s national past-time. Typically, it’s the mothers who are most involved in making sure the child squeezes every last possible advantageous drop out of every minute of their childhood. They are competitive with one another, and they groom their children to compete with their classmates. All this usually involves maintaining a degree of pressure on the child that many Westerners just can’t stomach.

One primary arena is the buxiban scene. From some Western perspectives, bÇ” xí bān(s) look like special Asian torture institutions designed for use on children; aka “cram schools.”

It’s a traditional belief that parents should send their kids to all kinds of crammers in order to compete against the other talented kids. Therefore, most kids in Taiwan have a schedule packed with all sorts of cram school lessons [link].

This is perpetuated by a meritocratic culture that measures merit through testing, with entrance into college, graduate school, and government service decided entirely on testing [link].

Technically, PEI is a buxiban, but Mingdaw has vowed to make it distinct and give the kids a positive learning experience (and this is paying off – the kids love it here for the most part). Buxibans are private for-profit after school schools that specialize in various subjects (math, English, etc.). Every family that can afford it fills up their children’s after school hours with as much buxiban-ing as they can without causing their child to have a nervous breakdown.

It’s standard practice for the competition to rank every student (name and grade) on a public poster each semester. At one buxiban near us, no student (out of dozens) has less than 95. We just received junk mail from a larger competitor that listed the name and grade of hundreds of students – the lowest score was 80. We have some students that pout or even threaten to break down in tears when they get 95 on a test. 95 isn’t good enough. Heck, some even get upset when they lose at sight-word bingo. Losing to your peers in school is not an option – period.

Knowing something of the amount of pressure these kids are under, and what can happen to some of them at home if they’re perceived to be under-performing, we inflate their grades. We still grade harder and give lower average grades than the competition, and we grade fairly, but 90 says something different here than it does in North America. In North America I imagine I’d give 10%-15% lower grades on average.

Today I gave a student just under 90 for the semester, averaged from six categories, and that was the lowest grade I handed out. Her mom was clearly disappointed and wanted an explanation. I tried to prepare for this kind of thing by praising the kids as profusely as possible in the Teacher’s Comments section of the report card (except for one kid, but she had it coming). I told this mom about how great her daughter is in class, and that it was just a couple incomplete homeworks that lowered her average. The mom was not happy. I hope I didn’t ruin anyone’s winter break.
*This seems to be a huge paradox in Chinese cultures: the meritocratic nature of the system is evident; that has roots in Confucius, as I understand it. Yet at the same time nowhere else on earth is the old saying more true that, “it’s not what you know it’s who you know.” One’s guanxi network of personal connections is what makes the Chinese world go round.

8 thoughts on “Spinning the grades”

  1. I think this runs in our pan-Chinese “national psyche” that traditionally people would devote their precious years in life to pursue “fame and fortune” through “getting good grades” in national exams. There’s a quote that perfectly depicts this dedication to our most favorite national pasttime activity – Test taking: “???????????????.”

    “You will be studying all by yourself with no attention spared from nobody for more than then years, and once you pass the test, you will be known for your achievement nation-wide.”

    That was written in the Yuan Dynasty, roughly 700+ years ago…


  2. Man, I’m so glad we shared this blog with our Chinese friends!

    I remember from some history reading that the classic Confucian exams were pretty much the only way for people to get ahead, for a long stretch of China’s history. I suppose what we have today is the modern outgrowth of that?

    It’s easy for Westerners to be critical of the way Asian parents often pressure their kids. But as we learn about the situation the parents are in, and we learn a little bit about why the parents are like that, it makes it harder to be critical. I don’t think American parents would necessarily perform better under the same pressures and circumstances.

    How would you explain how Chinese culture can be so test-result oriented yet at the same time, rely so much on personal connections and guanxi? To me, it seems like those are opposites – one rewards achievement/performance, and the other relies on personal connections? How do those things fit together?

  3. One of the most difficult things for me at my school, has been keeping the integrity of our tests. Obviously, if everybody passes, the progress of entire classes would suffer. Rather than let this happen, as most schools do, I actually fail some students. I’m sure it causes some loss in business, but some parents do understand that it’s better to be in a class of an appropriate level and actually learn something than to push forward at the expense of the student’s education.

    This is definitely an area where one must tread carefully.

  4. Mark, i agree that there’s a balancing act required. I don’t expect to grade the same way here as I would in N.America because the numbers mean different things in each respective cultural context. If I gave a kid an 80, him and his parents would consider that failing, I think. Not so in British Columbia (I thought 80’s were great in high school!). We don’t make up the numbers, but the way we grade and calculate results in higher numbers, and in N.A. I’d grade and calculate differently. If that makes sense.

    I agree that buxibans have to choose sometimes between what’s best for the students’ English (if they even really know… I often wonder) and what’s best for short term business gain (keeping parents pacified). After watching our boss face this situation many times over the last year, I’m proud to be a part of Pacific English Institute. I’d send my kids to a Mandarin version of this school if they had one (and if I had kids).

  5. I can give you one example: Successful biz people nowadays like to sign up for EMBA classes offered by some prestigious schools. One of the biggest reasons those already fore runners gathered to study is to establish quanxi.

    Academic success serves as a ticket to the elite circle, and often times adorns the status-conscious desendants of Confucious as a piece of Armani suits.

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