Home > Uncategorized > While China’s Leaders Want Tests De-Emphasized, NYC Chinese Immigrants See Testing as the Way Up in the US

While China’s Leaders Want Tests De-Emphasized, NYC Chinese Immigrants See Testing as the Way Up in the US

In contrast to an article in the NYTimes a few days ago described the Chinese government’s efforts to abandon the test-centric curriculum that drives instruction but stifles creativity, an article by Alice Yin in Sunday’s NYTimes describes the Chinese immigrants continuing efforts to use NYC’s— and the Ivy League’s— test-centric admissions policies as a means of providing their children with an opportunity to climb the economic ladder in our country. And as the title of the article indicates, these Asian test prep centers offer parents what they want: results. 

Ms. Yin describes the reasons for the success of these centers, which are the results student’s desire to succeed, which in turn stems from Chinese culture, parental drive and commitment, and US immigration policy. Ms. Yin profiles several students in her article, whose commitment is captured in a question Join Wang, one of a group of Chinese students attending NYC’s most prestigious HS, Stuyvesant, posed:

‘What are you going to do in the summer?’ ‘Go to prep,’” Wang says. “We all go to prep.”

While many competitive US parents enroll their children in internships or volunteer trips to round out their resumes for college, or sending them to camps to hone their athletic skills, Wang’s HS friends are all enrolled in test-prep schools in NYC. Ms. Yin attributes the industriousness of these Chinese students to culture:

This rigor is seen as necessary to keep up with national test-based systems like China’s, where a single exam determines university placement. “It’s Confucian to emphasize your children’s education,” (Pyong Gap) Min (a sociology professor at Queens College in the City University of New York) says. “You go to China, Korea and Taiwan, there’s after-school programs that they transplanted here.”

She also attributes it to the dedication of parents, who are willing to limit spending on everything else in order to reside in communities served by excellent schools or, if they reside in NYC, to spend thousands each year on “cram schools”. Finally, she cites a wrinkle in the US immigration policy that contributes to the recent emergence of the academic prowess of Chinese students:

Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, …argues in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” her 2015 book with Min Zhou, that much of Asian-Americans’ educational attainment actually stems from a hyperselective immigration policy: A 2015 census report found that a majority of Chinese immigrants have college degrees, a distinction matched by fewer than one-third of Americans as a whole and only 16 percent of the population in China itself.

This imbalance of Asians in the group of students who score well on tests and therefore are admitted in disproportionate numbers to selective high schools and colleges contributes to the call for the abandonment of tests as the primary metric for admissions, a call that the Chinese and other Asians resist since the test-centric selection methods have thus far worked to their benefit.

In the end, this combination of culture, parent commitment, and the inherent rewards of doing well on tests results in many Chinese students feeling a deep appreciation for the sacrifice their parents made on their behalf. Ms. Yin concludes her article with this anecdote about a Stuyvesant student Join Wang, which illustrates this mindset:

There’s also the concept (Professor) Lee calls “parental bragging rights.” When immigrants move to the United States, she points out, they often experience a drop in status — socially, professionally and legally. Some will never regain that stature, settling over the long term for more menial jobs. But they may attempt to recoup some standing through their children’s success. Chris Kwok, a 1992 Stuyvesant graduate… grew up in a working-class family in Flushing; in China, his father had been an engineer, but in Queens, he worked as a blue-collar city contractor, and Kwok’s mother was employed in a garment factory. For his first summer prep class, Kwok recalls: “I made no decision. It was just, ‘This is what you’re doing.’”

The programs he attended in the late 1980s, he remembers, were “terrible,” but at least half his classmates got into either Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, in part because the classes forced a certain kind of discipline. “My parents spent money that they earned,” he says. “The message is that you’re supposed to be paying attention to studying. If you didn’t, you know, you just felt guilty.”

Now that Wang is halfway through high school, he wonders at times where he will go from there. He admits that he would like to leave New York and try being independent for a while. But, he says, “my No. 1 priority is making my parents happy, because they have done so much for me. After that is what I like.”

On a recent Saturday, Wang was logging in to check his SAT results at a Thai cafe near his house, tapping at the screen as if playing some mobile game. “Oh!” he exclaimed, breaking into a sly smile at the score that emerged. “Checking my answers was so worth it.”

Was he going to celebrate? Wang wasn’t sure; it might be premature. His parents had already started him on private college counseling. He would have plenty of time to relax and pursue hobbies later, he said — once he had a solid job. I was reminded of a phrase he had recited earlier, one that almost every Chinese child has heard, including me: “Xiān kǔ hòu tián.” First bitter, then sweet.

The story told above is an echo of many immigrant stories beginning with the Pilgrims who valued family, emphasized hard work, and encouraged deferred gratification. The shame is that all of these values are being reinforced through a desire to score well on a single test.

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