Janelle Tan '18 Contributing Writer
Imagine being admitted to college based solely on SAT scores — no essays and no interviews. GPA and extracurricular activities are inconsequential — and high school is geared towards sitting one exam, an exam that can only be taken once.
If that isn’t terrifying, it should be. That’s the fear that propels millions of Chinese youth to do whatever it takes to get good grades.
While the “gaokao,” or Chinese college entrance examination, is arguably the most notorious symbol of the destruction of the potential for creativity and curiosity the Chinese education system as a whole, it is not the only manner in which China’s exam-focused system manifests itself.
In the latest Chinese cheating scandal, some 2,440 students were caught using high-tech cheating gear while taking a national examination to become licensed pharmacists in the northwestern city of Xian.
The scam was turned on its head when proctors detected abnormal radio signals that were being used to transmit answers to candidates in code. According to Chinese state media, candidates wore wireless earpieces or placed electronic “erasers” on their desks and had paid $330 for the service.
While being intensely focused on examinations is not solely a Chinese phenomenon — cram schools in Japan and South Korea are increasingly common — the Chinese educational system is marked by its distinct frenetic energy and unmistakable cheating culture.
In a one-shot examination system where 10 points can make a difference to the ranking of the university one enters, honesty is the last thing in the equation. Just like admission into Harvard, Yale and Princeton has become harder as greater numbers of increasingly talented students apply, Chinese examinations only get harder, and students only get increasingly desperate to get their foot in the door. The problem lies not with the act of cheating itself, but with the hypercompetitive environment created by the world’s most populated country and the devaluation of a college degree.
There’s a reason why so many Americans dream of going to Ivy League universities, or schools with prestigious names. The value of a college degree has been diluted, leading to greater emphasis placed on the prestige of the institution that conferred the diploma. And the problem is only amplified in China. In China there are fewer top-ranked schools, and there are no early decision or athletic recruiting cycles. As hiring college admissions tutors has become the norm among America’s rich and powerful seeking to get their children into prestigious universities, Chinese students seek their advantage by cheating.
Cheating is so ubiquitous in Chinese schools, however, that denying students the right to cheat is seen as disadvantageous. Within China’s educational rat race, to weed out cheaters is to deny students an equal playing field.
To China’s credit, its education ministry has proposed several reforms such as removing compulsory English testing and the ability of universities to recruit artists and athletes. The ministry has also encouraged universities to make their provincial quotas public.
While well-intentioned, none of these proposed reforms attacks the root of the problem: The door to elite universities is becoming increasingly small, and there are just as many talented, hyper-driven candidates fighting hard to get through that door. The Chinese Ministry of Education has done little to combat the country’s cheating culture.
There must be dramatic reform to preserve the integrity of China’s educational system. China’s pervasive cheating culture cannot be contained with crackdowns, and pre-examination screenings are already more thorough than airport security checks. If China is to find a solution to the cheating endemic, it must come from within.