Is China’s Gaokao Examination Biased Against the Rural Poor?

June 13, 2012

China’s national examination was given mere days ago, so a post about the gaokao is not only timely, but it also gives me yet another opportunity to do some comparative analysis.

When I was in college, I took a history of science class that included a unit on examination bias in IQ testing. The general topic of exam bias in the U.S. has been debated for decades, and the materials I studied in school went all the back to tests administered to U.S. soldiers who were off to Europe to fight in World War I.

I still remember my initial reaction to this. Exam bias? I was skeptical, figuring that there’s either a right or wrong answer, and the people that complain about bias are just losers. (I was 19 years old at the time.) Then the professor administered one of the WWI-era tests to us, and we realized that culturally-specific topics can make a huge difference. I recall being flummoxed by early 1900s references to brands of coffee, makes and models of U.S.-made automobiles, and general treatment of culture and even morality that seemed quite foreign to me in the late 1980s. In a few instances, confusion over these terms actually led me to choose the wrong answer.

The broader debate is whether bias in exam writing can be to the detriment of certain groups in society. In the U.S., unsurprisingly, this has all been about race, with white middle-class exam writers being accused, probably unintentionally, of ignoring the reality of less affluent urbanites (read “poor minorities”).

Keep in mind that all of this depends on how questions are worded, how exams are scored, etc. Sometimes we hear anecdotes about questions that sound quite skewed in one direction or another than turn out to be non-issues. But in the U.S. and some other countries, a great deal of research has been done in this area, and the problem can be quite real.

As the post title suggests, this problem is not limited to the U.S., and yes, it looks like we are having the same debate here in a province where 70% of test takers come from rural areas:

Exam chiefs in Southwest China’s Sichuan province have been accused of discriminating against rural students by including references to Apple Inc and micro-blogging in this year’s national college exam.

The tech giant, one of the United States’ most famous brands, was mentioned in a question about the effect of corporations on modern society, while a reference to micro blogs was made in a question about politics.

Some educators and Web users reacted angrily, saying such city-centric references are hard for youngsters from poor countryside areas taking the national college entrance exam, or gaokao.

“It’s unfair to students from rural areas who have never seen an iPhone or iPad,” Li Yi, a professor at Beihang University in Beijing, wrote on Saturday on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site. “If the (people who set the questions for the) gaokao need to be more creative, why not involve (a question about) breeding pigs and sheep?”

So one issue is a reference to a product that many of the exam takers have never seen and certainly cannot afford. If some of the kids were unfamiliar with iPhones and iPads, how could they discuss the effect of corporations like Apple on society? As someone who has written many essay exams over the years, I can assure you that that type of question just invites students to speculate unnecessarily — I’m sympathetic to the critics.

How about the question about social media and politics? First, interesting question, huh? Second, I think that this is a bit more justified. Yes, there is bias here, and many of the rural poor may not have much access to social media. On the other hand, if they are trying to get into college, they really need to be aware of Big Picture issues, and certainly in China these days, the role of social media and politics is quite prominent.

After all, the exam doesn’t just test specific knowledge on subjects like math and geography:

“The inequality in education is the root of so many discussions about the national college entrance exam,” said Xue Xiaolei, a professor at Chongqing Normal University.

“But I disagree that these references (in the Sichuan paper) were unfair. These questions are about evaluating the students’ analytical ability … and their skills in observing the world and society”, Xue said.

Peng Bin, a former student from Guizhou province, one of the poorest areas of China, agreed.

“You can still answer the question, even if you don’t know anything about the iPhone or iPad,” she said. “If they ask a question about France in the exam, it doesn’t mean I should have visited there beforehand.”

Agreed, in general, but I still think “iPhone” and “iPad” cross the line and are not comparable to “France.” But the general point is that this is all about income inequality. (Thought I’d miss an opportunity to bring that up?) As the income gap grows and the life experience of Chinese citizens varies considerably, and not just based on geography, these are the kinds of issues that pop up. I’ve said before, and will no doubt say again, in the near future, a rich kid from Shanghai will have a lot more in common with his counterpart in New York or Paris than a fellow citizen from rural Sichuan — we might actually be there already. It certainly makes testing more difficult.