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lost in shanghai



From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) December 10th 2009 Print Edition

To read the essay in Chinese click HERE

By Mina Tenison

Last week my 10-year son announced to me that he got a 58 on his Chinese test. Fifty-eight?!!!! Normally, I would have bolted out of my chair and ripped the exam out of his hand to see whether he really did score this abysmal, failing grade, but this time I was ready. I calmly looked at him and asked: “What was the class average?” His answer: Forty-six. Forty-six? So I calculated. Fifty-eight is twelve points above the class average: not bad. But of course I needed another piece of vital information before I could decide whether my son would get a big smile and a slap on the back or a frown and a lecture from me. I asked him, “What was the highest score in your class, and in your entire grade?” He then sheepishly admitted, “Seventy-Five.” I thought about that. Fifty-eight out of seventy-five. Can I accept this? Should I yell at him? Should I ask him to show me the test so I can point out how he could have done better? Then I asked him another question. “Where did you rank?” And he happily replied: “Five.” Five! My son was proud of himself. Sure, fifty-eight was not a seventy-five, or even that improbable ninety or a hundred, but it still put him at number five out of fifty students. And that was great for him and acceptable to me.

After four years in the Chinese system, I’ve gotten used to seeing such grades. Just five days prior to this test, the same son of mine scored 91 on a math test. His rank? Eighteen, out of a class of forty-two. That meant that seventeen children did better than his ninety-one. Yet, two weeks before this test, I saw a strange number on his class exercise sheet. It was a big ‘8’ marked in red ink. My son tried to hide it from me, and I grabbed it before he could tuck it away. I asked him what the eight was for. And he reluctantly had to admit that he had scored an eight on a Chinese language mini-quiz. I stared at him and said: how can you possibly get eight on a test? Frustrated, he nearly pulled his hair out and said: “Because, the teacher took five points off for each single tiny error!” So he then went onto explain that eight was not so bad because actually the very worst score could have been something like negative 400 (-400) if a student had gotten everything wrong. He looked like he was about to explode so I did not dare ask him what the lowest grade was. Maybe it was minus 150 or, then again, maybe it was eight--his. But he looked miserable enough and I didn’t want to push it.

When I discussed this and a few other incidents to one of my Chinese friends who is a recent college graduate, he simply sighed and replied: “Chinese education system doesn’t encourage children.” Another friend of mine, a brilliant student who graduated from Fudan University at the age of 19, just shrugged her shoulders and said: “Somehow, even when you do well, you don’t feel great or confident. You just feel nervous about slipping down that competitive ladder.” More than twenty years ago, this same friend had survived the accelerated Fudan University High School program where the lowest scoring five students got dropped from the program every semester. Although she graduated as an outstanding performer, she spent many months in anxiety when she found her scores falling precariously close to the bottom five students.

As someone mostly schooled in the American system, I’ve had to learn to look at the grades my kids bring home in a very different light. Where I came from, a score of anything below 88-90 is not very good, but only because anyone who does his or her homework and is paying attention in class can usually can earn this score. Now I have to evaluate scores of eight, forty, fifty-eight, and even ninety-nine with equal equanimity. I know that these scores don’t mean that he has failed, nor that he’s done extremely well. They only have meaning in context—where does he rank?

But after hearing about another fifty-four or seven-six, I cannot help but feel: is it too much to give children a way of evaluating their progress and achievement on a predictable and linear grading system where they feel confident and in charge? Must every test and rank threshold fill them with deep anxiety and self-loathing? Even if my son’s fifty-eight turned out to be a good score, it still fell forty-two points short of a hundred. And for the kid who scored the first-ranked seventy-five, did he go home feeling like a champion? Or did he go home and think: how many extra hours could I have studied so that I could have scored a ninety?

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE