Opinion / Berlin Fang

Gaokao essay prompts should be fair to all

By Berlin Fang (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-10 08:10

Gaokao essay prompts should be fair to allEvery year, the essay prompts in the gaokao, the national college entrance examination, lead to a carnival of comments and criticism. This year, the prompts included: Does feeding wild animals cause them to lose the ability to find food themselves? Does modern technology deprive people of beauty, such as that of a dark night? Should one follow traditional social norms in Beijing? Why and how do people see different views from their window? Do people have real freedom when they have to cross a desert? Are actors allowed to change scripts?

The only thing such essay prompts have in common is they are all unpredictable. Only on the day of the exam will the students discover what kind of essays they are being asked to write. Professor Zhang Yiwu of Peking University argues that a good essay prompt should by necessity be unpredictable, defying any who attempt to look into a crystal ball. I can understand this, but let us also be cautious of the negative repercussions of such unpredictability carried to the extent of a whim.

Granted, the secrecy prevents opportunistic educators from guessing the prompts and students from cheating, but it also breaks the boundaries of a level playing field. Students do not know what game they are playing, and they do not know what the rules are. Since they do not know where they are going, they can land anywhere. If the essays prompts are intended to select a few students for college, they do what they are intended to do. The smartest of students will always be able to do something with an essay prompt no matter how outlandish.

Keeping the essay prompts completely secret gives some students a helping hand if an essay topic turns out to be one they are familiar with. It puts the rest of the students at a disadvantage. In 2009, the essay question for Anhui province asked students to discuss "overtaking on a curve", which obviously favored students from families with vehicles. This year, the essay question from Anhui asked students to respond on books and their movie adaptations, again a rather narrow field that urban students will be in a better position to answer, as they have greater exposure to cultural events with which to discuss such topics.

If the purpose of the gaokao is to encourage educational achievement for all test-takers, it is necessary to make essay questions less idiosyncratic. I am hoping for a healthy feedback loop between the educational process and the assessment of this process by means of the gaokao, which is known to be the "baton" that directs the various actors and actresses in the grand orchestra of education. Taking at least some of the mystery out of essay questions will help shift the focus from guessing the essay "answers", to developing advanced skills in writing and communicating. If the gaokao is tasked with developing such skills, then the essay prompts being used at present actually create hurdles and inequalities. Teachers can prepare students in whatever way they like, and there is no real way of knowing whether they are preparing students for college.

One way of increasing the transparency of the gaokao is to make sure the essay prompts are rooted in commonsensical issues familiar to all test-takers. Make them neutral. Make them broad. Everyone should be able to have a perspective. No one deserves to be taken by surprise by a narrow topic in a specialized area of subject matter. Encourage students to prepare for the exam by studying structure and technique, developing such writing skills is more important than selecting students for college. Young students will grow into future citizens. They ought to learn to develop insightful thoughts on a variety of social issues and articulate them in a convincing and enjoyable fashion. Such skills are too important to be left to chance.

If there is no better way to maintain the nuanced balance between integrity and transparency, maybe the test designers should create an additional avenue for students to respond to an open-ended question about their educational goals and aspirations as part of the recruitment process.

The testing agencies could also consider giving educators and students more notice of the kind of questions they will ask, even if they only provide an illustrative list of ideas or descriptions of what they are looking for in such essays. Meanwhile, every student should know the rubric to be used in grading essays. Such rubrics communicate the expectations to students, so they can understand where they are going.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

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