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2018-12-07 12:52:15

The head of Zhejiang’s education department resigned on Wednesday after an investigation revealed that high school students in the eastern province had been given extra points on their college entrance exams for no obvious reason. Parents and students alike have panned the score adjustments, calling them opaque and seemingly arbitrary.

“I would like to express my deepest and sincerest apologies to the candidates, their families, and all the residents of Zhejiang province,” Chen Genfang, an education department official, said at a press conference on Wednesday, according to the state-run China News Service.

After results for the English section of the gaokao, China’s ultra-competitive college entrance exam, were released on Nov. 24, many students in Zhejiang were surprised to find that their scores for some questions had been weighted — or assigned a different point value, ostensibly based on their difficulty — with no explanation as to how or why. According to the provincial education department and standardized testing authority, the students’ scores had been boosted after parents complained of this year’s exam being too difficult. However, the methodology behind the weighted scores has not been disclosed, and some students have claimed that their scores were far lower than they had calculated from answer sheets released online after the exam. Other students have lamented that the score-weighting seems to have been applied at random.

One of the best-known adages about the gaokao — “Raise a point, kill a thousand” — is a testament to its rigor: Scoring a single point higher can catapult a student above thousands of their peers. As such, perceived slights or abuses matter deeply to parents with high school-age children. In August, four students in central Henan province said that their gaokao answer sheets — some of which allegedly had handwriting that did not match their own — had been switched, resulting in lower-than-expected scores and stoking anxiety over whether gaokao fraud might be a more widespread phenomenon.

In response to mounting ire among Zhejiang residents, the province’s governor on Saturday assembled a team of officials, Party cadres, and experts to investigate the matter. After four days, the investigation concluded that the weighted scores had been a “major negligent accident” caused by a “serious mistake in decision-making.” According to the provincial government’s official WeChat account, Guo Huawei, the director of Zhejiang’s education department and secretary of its Party committee, was ordered to resign, and several high-level officials remain under investigation on suspicion of violating Party principles.

The education department said in a statement on Wednesday that all scores had been reverted to their original, unweighted forms and made available to students on Thursday.

Sixth Tone’s calls to Zhejiang’s education department went unanswered on Thursday, and the provincial standardized testing authority refused Sixth Tone’s interview request, saying it had no comment beyond what had already been established by the education department’s statements.

On microblogging platform Weibo, Kai Lei, the executive editor of Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po’s Beijing office, called the score-weighting a “lawless” adjustment and one of the most egregious gaokao-related debacles since the exam was reinstituted following the Cultural Revolution. “The officials were just trying to get better test scores to serve their own political agendas,” he told Sixth Tone on Thursday, alluding to the fact that education officials are often held accountable for the academic performance of students under their watch.

Often criticized as a source of enormous pressure for students, the gaokao is currently undergoing reforms slated to be rolled out nationwide by 2020. Zhejiang and Shanghai are the first two province-level regions to trial the reforms, which aim to increase equity and decrease stress. The reforms spread the subject tests out over the course of the school year, give students the opportunity to choose their subject tests, and institute a “highest score counts” policy for students who take subject tests multiple times.

But this recent blunder has thrown a wrench in Zhejiang’s trial run. “The decision [to weight students’ scores] has severely impaired the perception of education being fair,” Kai told Sixth Tone. “It has had an adverse impact on government credibility, social stability, and students’ fundamental interests.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Chen Genfang (left), director of Zhejiang’s education department, bows at a press conference after an investigation concluded that the department had erred in adjusting students’ college entrance exam scores, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Dec. 5, 2018. IC)