Sunday, August 16, 2009

When (Chinese) Parents Cheat

I posted this up at my own blog, but I figured it might fit well here too. My wife and I have two undergraduate Tsinghua students from China staying with us for the weekend until they start school for the year at my college (Drury). Last night we got into an interesting discussion about the Chinese gaokao. For those of you who don’t know what that is: the gaokao is the national college entrance examination in China. Unlike the SAT here in the US, the gaokao almost single handedly decides (a) whether you go to college and (b) where you can go to college. So the pressure to do well on the gaokao is intense. Last night we talked about a fraud case involving the gaokao that apparently became a hot topic among mainland Chinese students.

Here’s the story (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the details, here, of course): last year a student took the gaokao and was scored as the top student in China. However, this scoring involved the fact that the student received an extra 10 points on the exam because he was a minority (there’s affirmative action component in total gaokao scoring). Interestingly enough, it’s not the affirmative action angle that is so controversial – this part is more or less accepted as non-problematic (I remember actually discussing this aspect of the gaokao with my students while teaching in China, and only a tiny few thought that minorities shouldn’t be given extra points in this way).

Instead, the real problem was elsewhere. Apparently it turned out that this student was not really a minority. His parents lied, and had been lying about the child’s ethic background for years (possibly with the inevitable gaokao advantage in mind). The child, mind you, did not know what his parents did -- he was in the dark about his own ethnicity. The Chinese officials found out, and took away his 10 points.

Fair enough. Nothing controversial there. Here’s the kicker, though: although the student’s score – even after the 10 points were taken away – was high enough for the student to be scored as one of the of the top students in China (and so could still easily attend any top school such as Tsinghua, Beijing University, or Fudan), no top school would enroll him. They refused to let him in. This is what got the Chinese students riled up. The issue: how far does responsibility and punishment extend? My guests thought that it was horribly unfair to punish the child for what were the sins of his parents. After all, he didn’t even know. However, on the other hand, the argument was made that if the colleges had accepted him there would have been no little reason for other parents not to try and repeat the fraud If the only consequence of being caught for cheating in this way was that you might have the extra points deducted (and a little shame), the risk/reward ratio for parental cheating would be tilted heavily in the direction of fraud.

At bottom, the thinking of the colleges is clear: to maintain the authenticity of the gaokao, and the integrity of the system as a whole, they felt that they should punish this student so severely in the hopes that other parents would not even think of committing this fraud. Whether the child knows or doesn't know about it would constitute no defense.

There are a lot of interesting dimensions here. The immediate question is whether the colleges were right to refuse the student admission. Another question might be whether there are cross-cutltural aspects to this issue: what would American universities do in such a case? What should they do?

Any thoughts?

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