How the new SAT test will instil US values into impressionable young Chinese minds

Kelly Yang says the SAT's new focus on US civil liberties has the potential to remould the mindset of a whole generation of young Chinese

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 1:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 1:50am

By now, most people know that the SAT, the test for US university admissions, is changing. There will be a longer essay and a new scoring system. What they don't know is that the new test, with its heavy emphasis on knowledge of the country's founding documents and civil liberties, has the potential to change the mindset and world view of an entire generation of Chinese youth.

Until now, American culture has been largely exported through Hollywood. And until now, the SAT has largely been a predictable and monotonous examination full of tricky words like "legerdemain" and "ignominious". Its "crammability" led to its popularity in this part of the world. Every year, tens of thousands of mainland students flock to Hong Kong to sit the SAT. Last year, China sent about a quarter of a million students to study in the US.

I've been teaching the SAT exam for nearly 10 years. Those of us in the Asian SAT test prep industry understand that perfect scores are no indicator of future academic or workplace success. They're an indicator of a willingness to memorise.

All that's about to change.

From 2016, every SAT will include passages from the founding documents, including the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Further reading will come from the texts inspired by these documents, such as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, works by Henry David Thoreau, and essays by Elizabeth Cady Stanton on women's suffrage.

Ask your typical Chinese kid today about voting rights and they'll draw a blank. To do well on the new SAT, Chinese students will need to cover the breadth of these foreign issues and philosophies, from American political parties and individual civil liberties to protecting the individual against potential abuses of power by the state. How, exactly, does the average Chinese student cram for that?

In some ways, the US College Board has created a test as un-Chinese as they come.

Not surprisingly, the new test has people in Asia worried. Within the industry, test preparation giants are scrambling to put together material based on the sample questions released. Critics say that the new focus on US founding documents unfairly puts international students at a disadvantage. The fact is, Chinese students may want to go to America, but most have no clue what America's about.

But this, to me, is the beauty of the new SAT. I believe it will trigger a new type of test prep, one that can change the world. In a couple of years, hundreds of thousands of students all over China will be poring over the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights with the same zeal and tenacity they once reserved for quadratic equations. I hope they'll come away with more than just high test scores.

If the new SAT succeeds, it will be the first time America is able to systematically shape the views, beliefs and ideologies of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students every year, not through a popular television show or a politician's speaking tour, but through what the Chinese care about most - exams.

Kelly Yang teaches SAT at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.