TEFL in East Asia Part Three: High Stakes Testing

This is part of a new series on teaching English as a foreign language in East Asia. Now that I have almost three months under my belt in Shanghai, it’s appropriate that I start to compare my new experiences with those of my 2012-2013 stint in South Korea. This is part one. For the other parts, once they are published, click here.


There are glaring differences between teaching in Korea and China, and there are the more subtle ones. In this case, the difference begins as a similarity.

In Korea, test-taking is extremely important. Students cram for more than a decade in some cases for the entrance exams that their parents hope will get them into a top university. I remember the skies going quiet over my apartment in Suwon (near a US air base) in early November, with hundreds of flights into Incheon International Airport cancelled to avoid interrupting the Suneung. Students are often quoted in the Korean media as saying that they have spent their entire lives preparing for the exam, which tests everything from English to history and maths.

Likewise, in China there is palpable emphasis on testing. We arrived in full Gaokao season, the major college entrance exam in this country. It takes place in early June every year, and due to the sheer numbers involved in a country of 1.2 billion the pictures that come out of this stressful week for students are impressive.

In both countries, parents flood into temples in the weeks leading up to these exams. They pray for success, and for the years of hard work raising a child in such an intensely competitive educational environment to be worth it. They wait outside the testing centres in droves. Whole towns and schools show up to cheer the students on as they enter the exam centres. In Korea, the younger students from the high schools make posters and shout their support. In China, they risk pissing off the ayis by temporarily banning public dancing. In both, millions of teenagers sit down with a standardised paper in front of them and attempt to show what they know.

And here comes the subtle difference: the testing culture that leads to that moment for a Chinese or Korean 17-year-old are not quite the same.

In Korea, I never really gave a test. It fell within the realm of the Korean teachers. They would give one test per semester, at the very end of the book. The tests, in as much as I ever saw them, focused on reading and grammar. The results had to be impossibly high. As in, 100% for everyone.

Anything but 100% was considered by many of my students and especially by their parents to be a complete failure. I wouldn’t see me teenaged students for weeks at times, during their middle school exam periods. One student came back from one of those into my book club class, close to tears. She had ‘totally failed’ her exam, she told me. She would never get into college, never get a job, and never be successful. Mind you, this child read and spoke fluent Korean, English, and Russian, and was in the process of learning Mandarin. She had a photographic memory and powerful analytical skills for literature. She drew perfect likenesses in pencil in her spare moments.

She had received a 98% on that exam. 98%. She missed a single question, and that meant that she had ‘failed.’

In Korea, many of the teachers I knew had to fudge tests and test scores in order to protect students from this kind of mentality. It was a not-so-subtle suggestion that if a student actually managed to fail a test at the hagwon, one had to change the score to that they wouldn’t completely give up (or get in trouble). It was pervasive. The test-taking mentality of Korea seeped into the education system in which I worked, even for those students who were only six or seven years old. Giving a student a 50% or lower as a final mark would be completely unthinkable.

China has high-stakes for its students, and huge pressure to perform on the exams that mark the transitions between middle and high school and high school and college. But somehow, the culture surrounding Korea’s ‘100% or nothing’ mentality does not appear to be found here.

I am required to give a test to my students every few weeks. The pre-schoolers have a test every four weeks. The elementary students have one every three weeks. The older students, already a little bit more patchy in their attendance due to other academic obligations, have a test every six-eight weeks. I mark the ones that I give within a week of the test and the results are immediately reported to their parents.

I have students in all of my classes who are genuinely failing. The average mark is about a 75%, with very few scores above 90% even for my most skilled students. The tests are difficult, with speaking and listening accounting for most of the lower scores. All four skills for English are tested, and the older students have to write essays. I’ve not heard any students talking about their parents putting the kind of pressure that they got in Korea. No one is asking me to change my students’ marks (not yet, anyway). The parents that I’ve spoken to in my Parent-Teacher Meetings tell me that although they are disappointed in the lower scores, they understand that language learning is a process. They want the overall learning above all, not just 100% on a test.

This is the interesting thing about living abroad; one sees the subtler differences that a short stopover would gloss over. It would be possible to assume that Korea and China have exactly the same test culture if one just made the call based on the photos of the Suneung and Gaokao alone. But there is a difference, and it’s interesting to be in a new test-taking culture here in Shanghai.

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