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The Empire's Clothes

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Chinese students have just completed a new round of their dreaded college entrance examination, the gaokao. As always, millions -- 9.12 million, to be precise -- of young people geared up for this culminating ordeal of childhood. And as always, their families maintained their support for the children as best they could.

But in one place, they take the cake. In a small city known for suspiciously high scores, test monitors -- technically referred to by the ominous term invigilators (a real English word) -- from outside the region were brought in to prevent all manner of cheating.

They uncovered one scheme after another in a fashion reminiscent of the lengths candidates went to during the 1,400-year-long Civil Service Examination. Then, young men rolled up thin crib sheets and inserted them into pens. Now, parents planned to transmit answers to students in devices disguised as erasers.

But this time the parents and their children were discovered.

And the parents rioted, claiming, "We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat."

High-stakes testing has become a game in which everyone is motivated to cheat: students, parents, teachers, administrators. In the U.S. in Atlanta, a superintendent made teachers change test scores.

In the south of the U.S., a test cheating ring assisted people attempting to pass teachers' examinations.

Wealthy students pay for exclusive test preparation, adding yet another advantage on top of all the others they already enjoy.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the point of taking these tests is to outfox the watchers. Somewhere, deep in the mists of the past, there may have once been a good reason for requiring testing. But that reason seems so far beside the point that it recedes invisibly. Now we have monitors, surveillance, substitute test-takers, transmitting of questions and answers, and coaching, yet cheating persists.

The innocent might question the garb of all these educational empires.

And what is seen in all its nakedness is suffering, waste, and inequality.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't seem to me a good way to organize childhood. Learning is great, but that's not what this is really about.

Contemporary society is being tested, and the results are not so good.