Chinese App Lures Parents by Monetizing Exam Scores

2016-12-13 07:06:01

Despite a central government call to ban primary and middle schools from ranking their students based on exam scores, some schools have partnered with a new app that provides the information to any student or parent willing to pay a fee.

Lizzie Zhao, an 18-year-old student in her final year of senior middle school in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, told Sixth Tone on Sunday that last month her school began using an online exam-grading system called “Zhixuewang,” or “Smart Learning Net,” on a trial basis. “I can see my scores and scanned test papers on the app,” she said, “but to see the exam rankings, you have to pay 270 yuan [$39] per year.”

According to Zhao, parents who download the app get messages informing them of their children’s scores and rankings as soon as the exam results come out. China’s education system is famously competitive, with students starting at a young age to prepare for coveted spots at top universities. Pupils are constantly compared to their peers, and parents go to great lengths to make sure their child is ahead of the curve.

In China it was once common practice for schools to publicly announced class rankings based on students’ exam scores. But in 2009, the Ministry of Education published a document that, among other requirements, instructed local education authorities to forbid schools from doing this. The policy aimed to “lift the burden” on students already coping with heavy course loads. Implementation of the ban has been patchy.

Fifteen-year-old Creeper Fang, a middle schooler in Changshu, a county-level city in Jiangsu, has signed up with Zhixuewang. Creeper told Sixth Tone on Sunday that the app offers a VIP package for 365 yuan per year that would allow him to see his class rankings, corrections on his exams, and even his friends’ exam scores.

“The school started using the app about a year ago,” said Creeper, who added that he didn’t think the VIP package was worth the money.

According to its official website, Zhixuewang is a data collection platform that allows teachers to share exam and homework corrections and other feedback with students and parents through the company’s app or website.

The platform is developed and run by iFLYTEK Co. Ltd., a Shenzhen-listed software company. In its financial report for the first half of 2016, the company said it sees education as an important field for profit and business growth, and that Zhixuewang cooperates with nearly 7,000 schools across China. “Zhixuewang complies with the Ministry of Education’s policy to ‘personalize and balance teaching with big-data collection and analysis,’” the report states. “Nearly 10 million teachers and students have benefited from the system.”

Ding Peng, deputy general manager of iFLYTEK’s education product business division, told Sixth Tone that the company provides ranking information only for the purpose of motivating students to perform better academically. “Most parents and students pay close attention to scores and rankings,” Ding said. “But this is not what we focus on. In our paid package, students have access to abundant resources such as study tips and sample test questions.”

Yang, a teacher in Zhangjiakou, a city in northern China’s Hebei province, told Sixth Tone that many schools in his city still calculate rankings based on exam scores. “Even without the app, the rankings are publicly available,” he said. Yang was unwilling to give his full name or cite his employer for fear of professional repercussions.

“Policy and reality are two different things,” Yang said. Under the current education system, in which a student’s choice of university is determined by their performance on the national college entrance exam, ranking students according to their scores is inevitable, he said.

For 15-year-old Creeper, receiving private access to rankings is morally acceptable, but having to pay for such a service is not. “Before the app was introduced, I could just ask my head teacher for my class rank,” he said. “If the school paid for our VIP accounts on the app, this system would make more sense.”

(Header image: Parents take photos of the ranking list of their kids’ exam results at a college in Beijing, Jan. 18, 2015. Xu Xiaofan/Beijing Times/VCG)