Stress test

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am

The mainlanders are coming! And, this time, it's not to go shopping. It's to take the SAT Reasoning Test. Actually, the fact that mainland Chinese children are swarming into Hong Kong to take the American exam is not the least bit surprising. After all, over the past 10 years, Chinese students have been flooding to overseas universities, particularly those in America and Canada.

In the 2009-2010 academic year alone, mainland students studying in the United States made up the largest group of international students. On many American university campuses, Chinese students make up the biggest minority group.

It is understandable why mainland Chinese students would rather study abroad than in domestic universities. The fiercely competitive local curriculum and the stressful gaokao, the national university entrance exams, coupled with the perceived 'prestige' of an overseas degree mean that more and more Chinese students want out.

Here, in Hong Kong, students are feeling the pressure from the influx of Chinese test-takers. Many students have complained that they are unable to get a spot at the test centre of their choice.

The SAT is administered six times a year in Hong Kong, at 20 or so test centres each time. As a result, some Hong Kong students have to wait until the next test date or travel to the New Territories to take it.

While the influx of mainland Chinese test-takers does put a drain on Hong Kong's exam system, there are plenty of others here in Hong Kong and on the mainland who take advantage of the migration. Travel agencies have started offering 'test tours', packages exclusively designed for these Hong Kong-bound mainland Chinese test-takers. Test tours usually include transport to Hong Kong, a hotel room near the SAT test site and a short excursion to Ocean Park, before a return trip to the mainland. What child wouldn't sign up?

And of course, while they are here, the students often sign up for last-minute tutorial classes and buy a variety of test-prep books. At our centre, we have taught many students who come from mainland China to take the SAT.

The levels of the students vary greatly. Some who come are clearly not prepared, have poor English skills, and do not aim to score highly. They simply want to get a score which can get them into any US university.

Others are extremely sharp, come from the international schools in mainland China, and are shooting for a 2,400 - a perfect score. Most stay at a serviced apartment with their parents and come in for a week of private SAT classes right before the exam.

Across the border, the overseas college preparation business is booming. At the same time, most mainland Chinese are still clueless about the overseas college admissions process. The combination is an industry which currently has too many players and a population which cannot differentiate between them. This creates the perfect opportunity to deceive and bamboozle.

This influx of Chinese test-takers is unlikely to change any time soon. As the mainland middle class grows and disposable household income rises, parents will naturally look for better educational possibilities for their children. Even if the SAT is administered in mainland China, Chinese students will still look to Hong Kong as a jewel for testing sites, test preparation tuition, books and materials.

All of this puts a drain on resources for our city's own students. The only way to tackle the problem is to reform higher education on the mainland, including improving the admissions process, attracting better faculty, and improving China's university rankings internationally.

If China is really serious about becoming a global superstar, it must do more to keep its best and brightest.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School