Authorities try to end China’s age-old worship of top scorers in gaokao exams

By Zhang Dan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/17 18:42:23

The cult of score worship is detrimental to students’ all-around development: expert

Top-scoring students of China's national college entrance examinations (gaokao) are no longer allowed to be exploited by schools, companies

In the past, top students were commercialized as spokesmen or branded by schools in exchange for lucrative sponsorship deals

Experts hope the policy will ease the stress and burdens that students feel

The highest gaokao scorer of Hubei Province in 2015 participates in a ceremony where she is awarded with more than 10,000 yuan ($1,570). Photo: IC

For the first time, Chinese Minister of Education Chen Baosheng announced that the country will ban propagandizing gaokao zhuangyuan (the title given to the student with the highest score in the national college entrance examinations) after this year's test, which falls on June 7 and 8.

"Once we find the case, we will deal with it seriously," Chen said during a recent national conference. He also mentioned the ban of propagandizing local enrollment rates.

Many speculated that the motivation for such a punchy prohibition comes from a concern about the excessive commercial value attached to zhuangyuan and that such propaganda brings students and parents too much pressure.

Others view it as a sign that China will further push forward its "education for all-around development," which has been mentioned for years, but with little effect.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, told the Global Times that an important incentive to publicize zhuangyuan is due to the national worship of the highest scorers. Zhuangyuan are linked with the reputations and achievements of schools and even local governments, so they are willing to do extensive publicity.

Xiong Bingqi, an educationalist in China, added that the key problem behind the zhuangyuan hype is China's exam-oriented educational system. "But if the ban doesn't specify the targets and the executors, it will very possibly become an empty talk," Xiong told the Global Times.

Lucrative business chain

In China, the word zhuangyuan originated from the imperial examination of the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Chinese people's worship of young geniuses has never changed throughout history.

Media reported that four students from Bobai County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with red silk flowers (used to praise one's achievements in Chinese culture) stood out from their cars' sunroofs, followed by a motorcade, a musical band and a lion dancing team in August, 2017. Waving to the people on the road, they looked like pop stars.

Such a celebration does not only attract people's admiration but also economic benefits. Some zhuangyuan have received financial bonuses, a SUV and even a house.

Beijing-based media outlet Meirirenwu reported that the student who achieved the highest mark during the gaokao in Enping, Guangdong Province, was rewarded a 130 square-meter-house by a company last year, which was worth at least 500,000 yuan ($78,587).

The interest chain behind gaokao zhuangyuan extends beyond the genius themselves. Companies such as educational institutions and health care products may approach them for help in promoting their brands.

On China's e-commerce website, the highest price for zhuangyuan's written notes is around 2,000 yuan; most sell for around 350 yuan. A zhuangyuan from Hebei Province who declined to reveal his name told the Global Times that many companies approached him after he achieved the highest score.

"Every time I delivered a speech to my peers, I was given 8,000 yuan," the young man said.

Research conducted by news portal in 2016 showed that 70 percent of zhuangyuan respondents endorsed companies to commercialize their halo.

Zheng Shuhao, a 2017 gaokao top scorer in science in Shanxi Province, said that many educational institutions asked him to share his experiences and teach courses to his peers.

Such publicity is "necessary," as zhuangyuan are "rare and precious," he said. "Besides, students are more willing to listen to our preaching than teachers and parents. What we say will benefit the students," he said.

But he also acknowledged that when taking part in a popular Chinese TV show called Super Brain, he felt burdened and pressured. "I can't afford to lose as a zhuangyuan," he said.

In addition to companies who want to have a finger in the pie hyping zhuangyuan, local governments and schools also promote these young "heroes."

After producing a zhuangyuan, a senior high school will publicize its own faculty and educational strengths to the local community to gain a better reputation. The schools then can attract more top students easily and some will raise their entrance fees.

"For local educational departments, they treat students' gaokao results as their administrative accomplishments," Xiong said.

A netizen on China's Quora equivalent pointed out that, currently, schools can only win the hearts of Chinese parents with high enrolment rates, so the reality doesn't allow them to give up their emphasis on scores, as they can't afford the economic loss.


Excessive worries

Xiong noted that when education is exam-oriented, it is inevitable for students and parents to pay attention to scores and ranks.

A netizen on said that due to China's large population base and comparatively inadequate resources, people have no other way but to participate in the gaokao, which is fairer than other methods.

But Chu said that scores are not a comprehensive evaluation of their performance at school. "Under such an educational system, parents and students worry too much about grades and ranks rather than learning," he said.

Although the government, in the 1990s, proposed the idea of developing "education for all-around development," both Xiong and Chu felt that this slogan is too abstract and has not been put into practice.

While educational authorities have demanded schools alleviate their students' burden, Chinese parents continue to send their children to extra-curricular and after-school classes in order to avoid "losing at the starting line."

China Newsweek analyzed Chinese parents' worry and students' heavy burden in a recent article. Different from Western parents, most Chinese parents treat their children as their lifeblood, hoping their kids can achieve the dreams they themselves were not able to complete and wishing all their dreams and glory could be realized by their children.

"Chinese parents also think their life experience could be fully transferred to their children, who should only take orders. That's where stress comes from," read the article.

It is notable that such a score-worshipping phenomenon is not unique to China. South Koreans also take college entrance exams seriously, where junior students usually wait outside exam rooms in the early morning hours knocking their heads on the ground to wish senior examinees good luck.

Gaokao reform

Chen said that releasing the burden of an exam-oriented educational system requires evaluation method reform and the establishment of a comprehensive quality evaluation system that does not rank students according to their scores.

China's current talent-selection system is using a so-called "3+X mode" test which requires students to take math, Chinese and English and other elective subjects either in science (physics, biology and chemistry) or humanities (geography, history and politics).

Some believe that this is the fairest way, because it provides a platform that equalizes opportunities for students of all social classes, including those with limited educational resources, to compete together.

But an online survey conducted by People's Daily in 2012 revealed that 53 percent of the respondents (5,882 netizens) believed gaokao is not fair any more, as it uses various test papers and sets different admission scores to students from different provinces.

Xiong said that gaokao reform is now locked into the inequality discussion being raised by media and the public. "Under the single assessment system, which only looks at scores, we cannot break the exam-oriented education. Schools should assess students based on a variety of standards, and students should have various choices," he said.

Both Chu and Xiong proposed an alternative to improve the current educational system by separating exam work and student recruiting. Rather than educational departments, universities should draw up exams by themselves and form their own student-recruiting team to select proper students, Chu proposed.

"At that time, students can find the schools they like. There is no need to rank scores from top to bottom to select talents. Hence, Chinese students can reduce their heavy burdens," Chu said.

As of the publishing date, the Global Times reporter has not found a detailed provision about the propaganda ban. An official surnamed Wang at Weihai educational department of Shandong Province told the Global Times that so far they have not received specific instructions on how the ban will be implemented

Xiong said that the ban should hold the top official of the local educational department accountable if their high school hypes zhuangyuan; if a high school hypes zhuangyuan, its recruiting scale next year should be limited.

Newspaper headline: Superstar students

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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