Yesterday the 9 million plus Chinese seniors sat for the English portion of the national Chinese exam, the gaokao. Today they will finish elective subjects.
My ability to view the testing stops at the security gate, but I have been privileged to receive descriptions of what goes on inside the test facilities from an Australian ex-pat, Ray Beilby. Mr. Beilby has lived in Jiangsu Province, just inland from Shanghai, for many years. He is a retired school Principal who has been able to observe at close quarters the administration of these annual tests. He says he’d been long involved with the administration of public examinations in his home state in Australia – but he found China’s gaokao involves examination administration of an entirely different order. And although my current location stands to his region as Kansas stands to New Jersey, the process across China is fairly uniform.
His descriptions of the inner workings of this massive test are fascinating and he speaks to the establishment and grading of the English papers.
"Those selected to set the papers are theoretically informed of their choice about April 30, although it seems the potential candidates for this task must have a pretty good idea that they will be selected since they seem to arrive at their centre with a fine bank of material suitable for casting into gao kao questions. From May 1 to June 9, they are incommunicado. Examiners from a neighbouring province are said to be sent to a secure but comfortable resort in this district. All wireless communication is blocked for the period – no phones, no computers, not even morse code; the examiners are cut off from the world. Unless they were to smuggle in carrier pigeons, they have no means of relaying their papers' contents until after the conclusion of all the exams. The resort is walled and no doubt sternly and very efficiently guarded at its one entrance. Those selected will not return to their classrooms until June 10."
"All Jiangsu papers are transferred to Nanjing where for a week or more a team of maybe 1000 police cadets, under close supervision, sit before scanning machines. Every student response is scanned into computers. It is from these scanned copies of student work that marking will be done. No one has access to the originals. Tinkering is impossible. All marking is done via computer screen. I think it takes about 10 days, until midnight each day I’m told, to complete the whole task since millions of sheets must be scanned."
"The results are always released on 25 June anywhere between 6 and 8 p.m. At some point, when all is ready, someone throws the China Telecom switch to ‘ON’ and there the results are for students and their family members to absorb with whatever resulting emotion. Meetings are held for school Principals in local education offices about 6 p.m. on that day and it is there that principals themselves are presented with complete results, dissected in every way a computer can treat such results. And there's nothing secret about how schools performed relative to one another. Everything is out there for all to see."
There is no FERPA, no educational privacy rights as in the United States. This openness is essential to public trust that the whole procedure is fair.
But the preparations leading up to the gaokao are phenomenal too.
"Exam rooms have been stripped bare. No written materials on walls—only a printed copy of the exam rules. Drawers, cupboards emptied. Anything painted on walls will be covered in paper. The clocks are externally synchronised. The audio control room and TV monitors keep all gaokao timing throughout China coordinated to the second via the test pattern clock of a Beijing CCTV channel. There's no such thing here as an accidental extra second of exam time."
"On the evening prior to the first gaokao paper on June 7, after the practice session is finished, a sealing party will go from exam room to exam room affixing seals to doors and windows – any point of possible entry. These will only be broken when the examinees enter the rooms for the various papers. Immediately they exit after the completion of a paper, the seals are reapplied."
In my last column, I mentioned the clear plastic envelopes that were the only packet they can carry in. Beilby explains: "Pencil numbers and types are strictly defined. What's in one envelope will be identical to what's in all. No 2B or red for unfair emphasis!"
"You'll notice no water bottles. They disappeared some years ago. If you want water, you must ask and it will be brought to you. You never know what might lurk under that cap or on a fake label!"
"Exam papers are packaged for individual rooms. After the exam, student answer sheets and the exam papers are repackaged room by room. If there's hanky panky, it will be known exactly where this occurred and which supervisors were involved."
"Each exam room has a photographic plan showing the faces of candidates permitted to enter that room and where they are to sit. This must match their ID and exam entrance card. A central computer allocates students randomly to rooms and places. There are two answer sheets for each exam, A and B. The student's place card will show the sheet type he or she is to receive. And so it goes ABABABA in one row and BABABAB in the adjacent row. Swivelling eyes are to no purpose."
Beilby summarizes the austerity of the exams: "If you can cheat on the gaokao in Jiangsu, you should be automatically enrolled at Harvard." No offense to Harvard—as most teachers know, it is harder to successfully cheat than to just study.
I thank Ray Beilby for these insider details. My teacher colleagues across Kansas are familiar with the timid procedures we use to prevent cheating on state assessments. And we think we have test security? No, the above is test security.