The Problems of the Unified State Examination in Russia

It was a warm sunny day in 2005. I was wearing my suit and tie. The day before, I followed advice of my English teacher and did nothing except relaxing. My classmates and I went to another school to take our first Unified State Examination (USE). I had my ID, a black gel pen, some snacks, and a dictionary (just in case) in my backpack. I had spent many hours with my English teacher on holidays and weekends and a few hours with private tutors, which together granted me with confidence for the test.

In 2001, USE was launched as an experiment in five Russian federal districts: Yakutia, Mari El, Chuvashia, Samara, and Rostov. In 2002, sixteen federal districts were added to USE. USE expanded to 47 districts in 2003, 65 in 2004, and 79 in 2006. Finally in 2008, the experiment reached every Russian school. Starting from 2009, the USE became an official tool for finishing secondary education and starting higher education. Certain regulations allow students to take USE before or after the announced dates.

The state examination is called unified because its results are used both for graduation from high school and for entrance into higher education. The USE consists of parts A (questions with multiple answer choices), B (questions require short written answer), and C (one or more writing assignments). A and B results are coded and processed by a computer. Qualified experts assess the C part. Russian language and Mathematics are mandatory subjects on USE, which are required for graduating high school. Three or more subjects are needed to apply for university admissions.

The universal examination is a recognized educational trendsetter in Russia. Universities are ranked by freshmen USE results. Teachers are awarded by their students’ USE results. Schools are rated by USE results. Private tutoring is proved to be a highly effective and marketable service for USE preparation. The USE assignments have transformed and continue to define school curriculum.


Numerous debates have taken place since the introduction of USE in 2001. The USE is expected to provide equal and just opportunities for every citizen of the Russian Federation to apply for any university admission if he/she meets requirements. However, students of nomadic schools (same citizens of Russia) who are striving to preserve their native endangered language, cannot meet requirements since their tutors cannot train them thoroughly. All tests, except foreign language, are in Russian. In 2009, the Russian Supreme court declined a claim for USE organization in other languages of the Federation. Children of native peoples left out of the system and obliged to study all subjects in Russian for getting a university degree. Moreover, foreign language will be the third mandatory USE as of 2020. In 2012, official reports stated that 2.9% Russia’s students failed the USE. Students who plan to apply for Arts and Humanities take the same Mathematics USE as future engineers.

The entire secondary education system is designed to prepare students for the standardized final testing. The USE caused a birth of State Final Assessment (SFA), which requires ninth-grade students to take two mandatory and three optional exams. Counselors state that exams are stressful for teenagers. There is some sense in it. Pressure starts at school when teachers motivate you by scaring of possible failure.



Some critiques point out that USE has caused corruption in schools located in remote areas where students score higher than in cities and towns. Nevertheless, it has reduced corruption in university admissions.

Students often use the 10-time-zone magic of Russia: students who start USE in Asian Russia help their colleagues in European Russia by displaying answer forms on the web. In 2012, 167 students from 46 federal districts were caught and their results were annulled.

As the Unified State Examination is widely criticized, the Education and Science Ministry makes an effort to further develop the test and address some of the critique. I think that the USE should be offered in all languages of the Russian Federation to preserve native languages, to provide equal access to education, to follow the state Constitution, and the article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration.



Lowering Education Standards for Ethnic Minorities: Rethinking Preferential Policy in China

In China, the month of June means so much for high school students. As the most well known high-stakes exam in China, an annual National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) takes place during three executive days in June. As this year’s university entrance examinations are approaching, the question of “is it fair for ethnic minority students to get extra points?” stirs a heated debate, like it always did in the past. As a Han ethnicity student, I took NCEE in 2006. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how I felt when discussing the preferential policy with my Han friends: I don’t like the policy because it is unfair to me, but I have no choice. Looking back today, I have to admit that this preferential policy still sounds controversial to me.

According to Chinese education policy, school entrance scores can be lowered for ethnic minorities. Translated into practice, the policy means ethnic minority students get an extra 10/20 points in the NCEE, which amounts to about 1.5% /3% of the total points of NCEE (usually 750 points). According to the central government, this policy is aimed at educational equity nationwide: in minority-populated areas, students may be disadvantaged due to historical, geographical, and economical reasons. Given such factors as low quality of teaching force and lack of resources in minority-populated areas, as well as maintaining solidarity among ethnic groups as the rationale, the Chinese government put forward the preferential policy. Although the starting point of the policy is to solve the problem of inequality, the theme of national solidarity stands out. Obviously, this policy has a hidden political agenda. “Choosing between ethnic and Chinese citizenship” is an identity struggle among minority groups. With the adoption of the policy, minorities feel they are less disadvantaged by NCEE, which may lead to a sense of belonging and loyalty to their Chinese citizenship.


Most criticism toward the policy arises in the developed areas where minority students enjoy as good education as Han majority, other than in ethnic autonomous regions where Han students study in same schools as minority students. In the former case, both Han students and minority students enjoy educational resources. In the latter case, minority students in backward areas lack resources, so do Han people who live in those areas. The Han children attend the same schools as minority students. They cannot afford books, do not have access to tutoring, nor do they have high-qualified teachers in class. The evidence proves that the policy itself is outdated. When it was approved in 1987, there were not so many minority students studying in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Nowadays, there are many ethnic minority students studying in developed areas and enjoy the same resources as their Han counterparts. Likewise, there are great economic development im ethnic autonomous areas. In this context, it is no wonder why Han students and parents feel angry. I would like to call this phenomenon “reverse-ethnic discrimination”: in Chinese society in general, Han is the dominant group that assumes superiority and enjoys benefits that ethnic minorities do not have. NCEE is a reverse situation because Han students are subject to a position where minority students benefit while the majority students do not. This reverse-ethnic discrimination is the result of government’s political manipulation—for the purpose of national solidarity.

As I mentioned earlier, the preferential policy is problematic in itself. It is problematic also because of its implementation. Each year there are reports suggesting that some parents change their child ethnicity from Han to a minority group, so that their child could get an extra 10 points in NCEE. Preferential policy for minority students causes corruption, which is detrimental to the educational system. A metaphor NCEE is “Policeman”, which means students have to do whatever NCEE tells them to. Another widespread metaphor is “bridge”: Millions of students swarm to a bridge, i.e. NCEE, and only a handful of them can arrive at the other side of the river, i.e. college. My question is: is high-stakes testing the root of all the problems? If we evaluate a student on many criteria, NCEE being one of them, will the situation be different?


In terms of solution, I agree with many others: the preferential policy shall continue on. However, there should be better regulations. Some people suggest that allocation of university enrollments should be changed: offering extra points to students from areas of poor economic development and poor educational quality. However, this suggestion cannot meet the country’s political agenda. To my mind, the challenge for the country is how to maintain national solidarity, while achieving educational equity.

Privatizing Public Schools and Publicizing Private Schools

I was amazed to learn that a girl studying business at Lehigh named Susan is from the same city in China as I am. Yesterday she invited me to lunch, so we had a good chat about our life experiences. I am seven years older than her. It turned out that we attended the same primary school. Later on, while I attended a middle school nearby, she attended a private school. She was the first person whom I know to attend a private school in my hometown. Our conversation helped me reflect on private education in China.


Let’s start with the private schools in the city I was born and raised up. I grew up in a medium sized city in eastern China. I attended public schools I was assigned to. By the time I graduated from primary school, there was only one private school, called New Era, in the city. It was a newly established private middle school. In the following years, more private schools were established at various levels. According to Susan, when she graduated from primary school, she had a couple of choices. She could either attend a public middle school, just as I did, or attend one of the private schools. She finally chose a newly established middle school named Bridge near her home. What is interesting about both the New Era and Bridge schools is their connections to by public middle schools. Most of the teachers worked in the mother public schools prior to the establishment of the private schools. New Era and Bridge charged more fees than public schools and generated great profit each year; in return, the mother schools assigned their best teachers, administrators, resources, and facilities to the private schools. These public funded and public run private schools became the first choice for many parents and, at the same time, the target of public criticism.


Theoretically, each primary school graduate is assigned to a certain middle school based on geographical proximity. The student’s parents can waive attendance by demonstrating their child will attend another private or public middle school. If parents want to choose another public school than the one their child is assigned to, they have to pay an extra amount of money and bride school officials. Parents also have the choice of private schools. Let’s take New Era, for example. Its mother school Brooks used to be one of the best middle schools before any private schools appeared in the city. Later, it established the affiliated private school, New Era, which was still run by the mother school. New Ear has two ways to attract students. The first way is by publicizing and advertizing the desirable educational quality of New Era among all of the students assigned to Brooks. Because Brooks assigns most of its high quality teachers to private schools, parents who can afford the high tuition usually choose to send their children to New Era instead of Brooks. If the parents cannot afford the high tuition or prefer public education, their children stay in Brooks. Many parents who cannot afford to send their children to New Era complain about the poor teacher quality in the mother school. The second way that New Era recruits its students is by advertizing to the broader community. Anyone who is interested is eligible to apply. Nowadays, New Era became one of the best middle schools in the city, while its mother school’s reputation dropped because its students’ performance in high school entrance exams has been on decrease.


China is not immune to the process of globalization. Chinese government rides on two competing forces of socialism and global capitalism. With socialism at its foundation, the government guarantees that public schools are predominant in number. As a result of global capitalism, private schools have gained momentum (Mok, 2005). The private sector is encouraged by policy because private schools are considered a driving force of enhancing educational quality in the country overall. Meanwhile, public schools have been privatized to make profit. Currently, there is inequality within public schools due to the embedded private sector. To my mind, public schools should offer equal resources to all enrolled students. In the wave of neoliberal market economy, how can the Chinese school system, especially in the public sector, maintain a place where all students benefit?


Mok, K. H. (2005). Riding over socialism and global capitalism: Changing education governance and social policy paradigms in post-Mao China. Comparative Education, 41, 217-242.

Bilingual Education in Tibet: Promises and Problems

Education equity has become a hot topic worldwide. As a country consisting of Han majority and 55 minorities, China has made efforts to ensure education equity between the Han majority and the ethnic minorities. China’s minority education gained momentum since 1980s. In Tibet, for example, dropout rate decreased, literacy rate increased, and more Tibetan students went to colleges. As a part of minority education, bilingual education policy for minority students has been in effect for decades. I have been curious about what bilingual education looks like in Tibetan-speaking areas. My conversations with a friend made me reflect on this issue again.


At a friend’s party I met a guy. He was a third year Ph.D. student studying engineering in the United States. I was so exited when I learned that he was from rural Tibet. He was the first person I know who was born and raised in a Tibetan ethnic autonomous region. I had millions of questions to ask him. When the topic came to education, to my surprise he did not talk about of the lack of facilities or poor teacher quality. Instead, the first issue he brought up was how bilingual education in his village hindered the potential of the kids.

blog 1 image

“In my village, bilingual education is not as glorious as one usually imagines”, he said, “Tibetan is the medium of instruction in primary schools, but all of a sudden, the language of instruction switches to Chinese when it comes to middle school. It caused a lot of problems for me”. According to him, both of his parents were Tibetans, so neither of them could help him learn Chinese. He also considered language as part of culture. “I really appreciate my culture. Tibetan identity and language means a lot to me. I cannot throw them away. As I know, some of my friends chose to attend schools in India where we can use Tibetan throughout schooling”.


My friend’s case is not uncommon in ethnic autonomous areas. For example, the program for educational development of Qinghai (2010-2010) promulgates bilingual education—Chinese is the main and instructional language, and Tibetan a supplementary language. However, people have different notions about the relationship between the Chinese language and the Tibetan language teaching in school. The sudden switch from minority language to Chinese causes much problem for minority students. Although in lower grades Chinese is taught as a second language, many minority students do not have the Chinese proficiency to attend Chinese-language-only schools. The same situation is in Tibet. Although most primary schools still use Tibetan as a medium of instruction, Chinese is the language of secondary school and the ticket to non-farm sector employment. This causes high dropouts rates in junior secondary school, which decreases the learning potential of many students (Postiglione, 2008).


Chinese policy attempts to popularize Chinese and minority language. There was a significant commitment to minority language maintenance and bilingual education in China’s language laws from 1905 to 2005 (Ross, 2006). However, problems exist. Even though bilingualism promotes Chinese as well as minority languages, the focus is always Chinese. In addition, although minorities are granted equal status with the Han language by law, Chinese is the official language that has legitimacy. Furthermore, reward mechanisms favor Han speakers, because it is easy for Han speakers to find better education and lucrative jobs. For example, most Chinese universities have Chinese language exams for minority students.


Like my friend said, many Tibetans believe that their indigenous language should be the medium of instruction as Tibetan language is integral to Tibetan culture. As a result, as my friend witnessed, many Tibetan families send their children to India where Tibetan can be used as a medium of instruction. Contrary to indigenous people’s beliefs, policymakers believe in their own cultural superiority, which includes their language. Bilingualism has become uni-dimensional, instead of multi-dimensional. That is, minorities adjust to the majority by learning mandarin Chinese. The other way around, there is no learning of minority languages on the part of Han majority. It seems to me that the minority education policy tries to help the minorities, to patronize them. Policymakers think there is nothing for the minority groups to give back in terms of education—what policy does is help the minorities. With such a patronizing attitude, I don’t think educational equity can be achieved.


Right now I think the minority policy aims to serve Han people in Tibet. Most officials in Tibet are Han. If children of Tibetan officials learn good Chinese, they get the ticket to a bright future, such as government jobs. Nevertheless, for Tibetan students, Chinese is not as important as Tibetan language. Thus I think the current bilingual policy favors just one group instead of both. Bilingual education policy in China has produced positive educational results, as proved by many educators, but to my mind, there is still room of improvement.



Nima, B. (2001). Problems related to bilingual education in Tibet. Chinese Education and Society, 34, 91-102.


Postiglione, G. A. (2008). Making Tibetans in China: the Educational challenges of harmonious multiculturalism. Educational Review, 60, 1-20.


Ross, H. (2006). Where and who are the world’s illiterates: China. UNESCO Global Monitoring Report China Country Study (June 20), 65 pages

High Fees in Private Schools

Except for low-fee private schools, most private schools require much higher fees than public schools. Nevertheless, private education is becoming more and more popular, with the number of private schools all over the world. Now private schools have broad coverage of kindergartens, primary schools, middle schools and high schools. As more people are getting accepted into private schools, these schools are also accepting increasingly higher fees.

Although I am psychologically prepared and aware of the range of high tuition charged by private schools, I am still shocked by the 50 most expensive private high schools in the United States listed on this website. The tuition for day-time students in the top 1 school is $43,314 per year, and even the school which ranks 50 also requires $35,755 per year. [1] Obviously, the tuition is much higher than the cost of attending some universities and colleges.

Meanwhile, the same phenomenon happens in China. In Beijing, sending a child to a private kindergarten with bilingual programs costs about 9,000 RMB (about $1,500) per month, which is also much higher than the cost of universities and colleges. [2] To be honest, the extremely high tuition has gone beyond my ability to understand and accept it.

What kind of knowledge is worth such high tuition? After pondering this question initially, I thought that high tuition is simply ridiculous. But when I looked over the description of the top 50 expensive private schools, something else caught my attention. For example, some schools say that they have perks to top college destinations, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and so on. [1] Among those schools on the list, some can provide opportunities for students to study abroad, and some have abundant extra-curricula activities for students. At that time, I realized that high teaching quality and superb facilities are not probably worth as much money as, these additional perks. Likewise, Chinese parents who send their children to receive bilingual (Chinese and English) education at a high cost may believe it would be a good start for their child’s bright future.

Moreover, there are some other reasons for parents sending children to private schools. Private schools have smaller class sizes than public schools, which is the reason for some parents choosing private schools. For those introverted kids, a too large class size is not adequate and may prevent children from developing their strengths. Meanwhile, a smaller class size will make them feel comfortable and develop their strengths. [3]

Interestingly, when parents talk about high tuition in private schools, most of them think it is worth it. Laura Dean, a mom living in Bay area, spends $40,000 a year for her two kids’ private school tuition. Although they live in one of top-rated school districts in California, Dean still thinks private schools are better than those public schools and the quality of education in private schools is “worth every penny”. [4] One of my aunts sends her son to a private middle school in China, which is far away from home, meaning she has to spend much time traveling, in addition to paying the high tuition cost. And she also thought it was worth it when I asked her.

For many parents, the main reasons for choosing private schools are the high teaching quality and superb facilities. However, many parents are struggling with the high fees of private schools. For example, in Beijing, it is almost impossible to find a reputable kindergarten with less than 1,000 RMB (about $150) per month, which is nearly a quarter of an average salary, putting much pressure on middle-class families.[5] Because of this, it is difficult for parents to afford high tuition. Xiao Zheng, a Chinese mother who has a three-month-old baby, said “my husband and I began to save money for our baby after our marriage.” [5] Along with this issue, it is not surprising that private schools have lost huge numbers of children because of the high fees. For those children whose parents cannot afford the cost, they choose state schools or public schools because were fees are lower.

Whether in China or in United States, many people still regard public schools as a second choice because of the lower teaching quality and facilities. Currently in China, high tuition in private schools is a problem for many families, while the lower teaching quality in public schools also needs improvements in order for students to receive high quality of education at little or no cost. To address this issue, the government needs to take more measures.







Anti-corruption education: to be or not to be?

Since 2014, all high schools in Vietnam have been implementing the updated curriculum for civic education that includes anti-corruption content. This initiative by Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training attempts to tackle the problem of corruption in education. However, many people are skeptical, wondering whether this initiative will actually translate into behavior changes.

According to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI 2013), Vietnam ranks 116 of 177 countries and territories. A survey published by the World Bank in the Vietnam Development Report (2010) reveals that 17 percent of service users say that corruption is serious or very serious in public university and college education. In a recent survey, Transparency International (TI) also found that 49% of Vietnamese respondents perceive their education sector to be “corrupt” or “highly corrupt”. The percentage was higher than that found in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. In the words of Pascal Fabie, a regional director in Asia and the Pacific for TI, corruption in education is the “double jeopardy” for its adverse effects to the future generation.

In recent years, along with the issuance of the anti-corruption laws, a number of anti-corruption campaigns have been launched in Vietnam. Under the Government’s Project 137, high schools and some institutions have started incorporating anti-corruption education in school curricula since 2013. Receiving accolades by many people, this initiative is often critiqued for its practicality.

The opponents believe that teaching about anti-corruption is just a waste of time. It is only about theory, not practice. There is no guarantee that students who learn about anti-corruption will not be committed to corrupt behaviors in the future. Moreover, civic education has been repeatedly claimed to be one of the most unimportant and boring subjects at school. In fact, most students see it as a non-core subject. They have invested little in this subject as they believe it has no role in their academic success. Meanwhile, the subject’s contents and teachers’ lack of appropriate pedagogical strategy further contribute to making the subject ineffective. Obviously, with the old way of rote learning and lack of practical application, anti-corruption education might eventually become a redundancy in students’ study.

Though anti-corruption education may not equip students with any practical skills overnight, students would become better aware of what entails corruption. They will learn about which behaviors or practices are viewed as being corrupt. This understanding is important because perceptions of corruption vary greatly among different cultures. In addition, many popular practices (including cheating in exams or giving money to teachers) are too often taken for granted. Children who observe and then practice these acts may never perceive that they are doing something bad.

It can be a surprise even to those working in the field of education that corruption entails more than what they often assume. According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), corruption in education is most evident in such behaviors as buying slots in an (elite) public school; buying grades; recruiting and promoting teachers; as well as cutting out budgets for school supplies and education projects. A great many other smaller scale, subtle forms of corruption are going unnoticed and not seriously challenged.

Through anti-corruption education and campaigns, more people will become aware about the varied forms of private tutoring, abuse of schooling fees, and textbook monopoly as corrupt practices.

It is this very fact that makes the skeptics concerned. Rampant cheating and dishonest practices in the society can in effect negate anti-corruption education. A survey by TI found that 95% Vietnamese students admitted that they cheated at least once during their school time; many teachers and education administrators received grafts for improving a student’s score or as a guarantee for university acceptance. In a more subtle form of corruption, many teachers are found to hold extra tuitions with fees in the name of improving students’ academic performance. More and more parents come to believe that their children are either coerced to take the extra classes or put into a disadvantageous position in the mainstream class.

In this context, it is effective to teach moral lessons while what is learned is sharply contradicting the reality? Is it effective for teachers whose overall image is ruined by such corrupt practices to teach about morality? Is it possible for the youngsters to learn how to fight corruption caused by the adults?

In a broader context, while several high profile corruption trials are being executed as part of a crackdown on graft, the overall picture of a corrupt society with loose legal framework seems unable to convince the public that the government is truly tackling corruption. Anti-corruption education would then turn to a dogmatic and theoretic class; and worse, students would end up becoming either cynics, dissidents, or indifferent citizens. This is definitely not the expected outcome of any anti-corruption education.

Undoubtedly, anti-corruption education has its merits. However, for it to be effective, a sea of changes in the legal and political system is badly needed. At the very least, anti-corruption education shouldn’t be a “stand-alone” subject. First, it should be incorporated in the whole curriculum towards the common goal of equipping students with solid understanding about law and general code of conduct. Importantly, teachers play a crucial role as both an instructor and a role model in instilling in students the significance of integrity. To me, poor working conditions or any social impacts should never be a justification for teacher corruption. When the law on anti-corruption has not been complete, teachers’ own conduct and equal treatment of students are genuine lessons on anti-corruption.

Second, anti-corruption education should be accompanied by different extra curricular activities that aim to develop rounded citizens who are honest and respect the laws. Together with anti-corruption campaigns supported by TI or World Bank, these activities are necessary to get students involved in activism promoting integrity and honesty in study and their own life.

Vietnamese youth will expect and definitely learn a lot from these activities beyond the mainstream anti-corruption education.

Snow, Freeze, and School: Knowledge or Health?

My first academic year at Lehigh University is coming to an end. During the first semester, I was adjusting from Russian system of education to an American one. I was introduced to many new things. For example, I received all course plans with lists of reading material and assignments on the first day of classes, which is different from the Russian higher education system. It was new for me to have online classmates who study from other parts of the world and never see them physically in class. I learned that an online class method could be beneficial both for students and professors. If one of them is sick, he or she can join online and participate in class discussions.

However, perhaps the biggest surprise of being in an American education system was school closure regulations related to weather. I enjoyed winter in Pennsylvania. It was not as cold as in Yakutsk. Usual winter temperature in Yakutsk is -49F. Due to extreme cold temperatures, we have Schools Closing Days regulations. According to Yakutsk Department of Education, secondary schools shut down with the following order: students of 1-5 grades don’t have classes if temperature is -49F, students of 1-8 grades – -54.4F, students of 1-12 grades – -58F. These regulations refer only to students of secondary education. University students have classes in any weather. Other federal subjects of Russian northeast also have similar regulations for secondary schools, but may differ in temperatures.





I was surprised when higher education institutions got closed because of the snowfall. It wasn’t cold – it was just snowing. Even flights got cancelled or delayed because of the snow. Meanwhile, snow can’t stop Yakutia airlines pilots! For the first school shut down, I found it weird, but I enjoyed spending the day in my room. For the 4th time, students could start thinking about costs of each snow day since most of them pay for their education, particularly, about the price of each lost class (See more in post by Sarah Glickstein



Winter in Yakutia is a real challenge. Adults and children catch a cold very easily, which can last for several weeks. Some think that if you are from Russian northeast cold temperatures are nothing to you. I understand that peoples of Siberia got used to cold and learned how to survive in these extreme conditions. However, this doesn’t make us different. We are still people with the same rights. Winter in Yakutia is hard (cold weather, short sunny hours, wearing a lot of clothing, high-cost fruit and vegetables, 15-minutes-bus-wait when its -50F) and risky (e.g. a heating system is out, a broken car on way to other village, days without hot water, etc.). Farmers collect natural ice from lakes and rivers for domestic consumption and keep it under ground for summer use (ground is filled with permafrost).


by Bolot Bochkarev from

Some American states have school closures due to extreme heat and humidity. Heat or cold, it happens annually and teachers develop their own ways of dealing with harsh weather conditions. Some turn to online education, while others adjust school schedules. In the case of Russian northeast, it would make sense to reform the academic year by moving the two-month holidays from summer to winter, while developing curriculum for the whole summer with one-month-holidays. This also can be applied to higher education and other areas. The reform must be widely discussed, but during winter, it could prevent catching colds, families might travel to warmer places like Sochi, and nomadic schools can have specific benefits as well.