Scott Sommers has written a wide-ranging and thoughtful post on education in Taiwan. The ostensible topic is globalization, but far more interesting to me is his take on testing. He argues that the prevalence of centralized testing in Taiwan is not a holdover from imperial times, but a new policy implemented by the KMT to deal with the primacy of Japanese as the language of literacy on the island.
Prior to 1905, tests had been used in Imperial China for the selection of public servants. This system had disappeared almost completely (Tien, 1972). One of the KMT’s first actions was to revive and expand testing to include a vast array of different aspects of life. The imposition of government-controlled paper-and-pencil tests to every facet of life in Taiwan assured that the government could define what legitimate knowledge would be. By writing these tests only in the Mandarin-language and by assuring they contained political information about China and KMT doctrine, the government/KMT came to define legitimate professional knowledge in a very political way.
Scott then goes on to compare the role of testing in contemporary Taiwan with other countries which rely extensively upon testing for educational advancement, specifically focusing on Canada.
The differences lie in who gets to write these tests, and hence in who defines what knowledge is important. As I stated above, in Canada and other Western states, it is the professionals themselves who write them. In Taiwan, while professionals do the writing, they do so following complex rules for content that are defined by government agents. What must not be lost is that this is a system established and expanded to control access to many aspects of life under the military control of the KMT. And that perhaps the single biggest aspect of life that military government was forced to deal with at the time of the establishment of the testing system was the lack of Mandarin language skills among indigenous Taiwanese.
It would be interesting here to compare Taiwan with India, where testing in English has been an important part of the bureaucracy since Lord Macaulay’s time.