On the evening of June 8th, I left my school for the provincial capital Wuhan. I was employed by the Hubei Provincial Exam Academy to join the hundreds of workers in grading the National Matriculation Test.




I travelled to and from Wuhan by train with a teacher from my city. Both trips were taken overnight. The next morning we reached the destinations. We travelled with a sleeper ticket which allowed us to sleep on a bunk bed on the trip. The train to Hankou was air-conditioned. The train for home was not, but the weather was pleasantly cool.




We were put up at the International Academic Exchange Centre on the campus of HUST. My comrade and I shared one guestroom, with all the usual facilities found in a hotel room—a telephone, TV, a bathroom, an electric kettle and access to the Internet. The hotel complex was air-conditioned by central heating. The room was clean and well-maintained.




We had our three meals in the canteens on campus. An e-card allowed me to order whatever meal I liked in the three or four canteens around the hotel. The canteens catered for the student population and the faculty. In one canteen there were various specialty foods from different areas of China. I was pleased with the meals. They were reasonably priced and clean. The taste was fine.




HUST is one of the first-class unis located in the provincial capital. It is an acronym for Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Some of its engineering programmes are of the highest standard across China. In recent years the uni has recruited foreign students. I met some black, Japanese and American students in the school during my stay there.


The campus, laid out in a chessboard, is immense. It is divided into squares by roads that crisscross the land. The school is green, with trees and plants everywhere. Birds find heaven in the trees. During my stay there, I often saw turtledoves walking on the lawn searching for food. They were accustomed to the people walking by and so were not disturbed by them.


The students move about on a bike. Mini shuttles powered by electricity provide transport around the school. You would have to pay one yuan for a trip inside the school.


HUST lies in what is officially promoted as China’s Optics Valley, fashioned after Silicon Valley. I took a walk around the neighbourhood on Duanwu. The area is largely undeveloped. I saw a number of corporations which do laser products in the area.




The software programme


All the work was done on a software programme developed by the Shenzhen Qiming Technology Corporation. The papers were scanned and digitised. Each paper had a unique code. The application ran on a network of computers. One computer controlled the network. Each worker logged onto the network using his user name and password.


The way the work was done


I joined the 220 workers in grading the writing part of the test. An examinee’s paper was checked by two workers. When the gap between the two grades was within five points, an average of the two would be the final score for the paper. When the gap between the two grades was larger than five points, the paper would automatically be forwarded to a third worker for grading. The third grade was then compared with either of the first two grades. If the gap between the third grade and either of the first two fell within five points, their average would be adopted as the final grade. However, if the gap between the third grade and either of the first two was still larger than five, the paper was referred to the panel of experts for the final score.


The workload


I arrived at HUST on the morning of June 9th. We reported at the HUST Computing and Network Centre on the afternoon. The first day June 10th was spent on training. The teacher in charge of the work organised the training. All the workers were required to check 14 papers before their grades were compared with those given by the panel of experts. This job was done for a second time to ensure that the workers’ reliability was up to the standard.


Checking kicked off on June 11th and ended up on the morning of June 19th, with one day off for Duanwu. Altogether 8 work days were spent on the job. We started working at 8.10 and stopped at 11.50 for a lunch break. Work was resumed at 2.30 and closed at 5.30 in the afternoon.


All the work was monitored by the network. Each grader’s performance was demonstrated at any time in a chart—the numbers of papers he processed, how many of his processed papers were adopted and how many were invalidated.


In all I processed around 6,000 papers in the 8 work days, with an average of 700 papers a day. I was among the faster checkers, but the fastest processed around 1,200 a day.




The aim of the National Matriculation Test is to choose those exam candidates who are qualified for a place in university. Therefore the exam is eliminative. The good ones should be separated from the bad ones. And the authorities hold it as a principle to be fair and just in this process. My work experience convinced me that the official principle is largely adhered to, though I do not have any statistics to prove it.


The workers


The workers comprise college English teachers of HUST, graduates of the English language from HUST and other unis, and high school English teachers from different parts of the province. Most of the workers work in Wuhan. And college teachers and students make up the majority. Probably the organisers decided on the makeup of the workers in order to save costs. A teacher from other parts of the province would have his transport, accommodation and board covered by the organiser. A worker from the capital would have all the above left out.


The work order


The work order was excellent. All the workers had to show a pass to the guards upon entering the venue. No smoking was found in the room. It was quiet when the work was going on. Few workers chatted during working hours. The only thing I wished could be improved was that some workers still used a mobile phone at the venue although its use was banned by the rules.


Intelligent copying


An essay caused controversy among the workers. The examinee copied part of the reading comprehension passage on teenage rebellion and then he commented on the role of smile in his life. The essay was so well constructed that if the reader had not read the exam, he would have been impressed by the good language of the writing. The panel of experts dispatched the paper to all the workers for grading. Some gave it a zero; some 23.


The score was finalised by the panel of judges at 17. One old professor explained that the examinee, instead of copying mechanically, demonstrated his writing skills by blending the text in well with the whole essay.


His comment was met by loud retorts from a female worker, who said that granting the essay 17 points was equal to encouraging more examinees’ copying reading comprehension passages in the future.


Personally I think that as long as a candidate uses quotes creatively and to the point, he should be given a high score. Intelligent copying is good imitation. Imitation plays a very important part in language learning.


The strain


This job is demanding. To be efficient and reliable, a worker would have to concentrate on the job. Most workers would develop better skills as they went along. A worker did not need to read through an essay before giving a grade in many cases. However, I still met the following problem during the process.


Boredom strained my brain. Boredom resulted from reading the same question repetitively. At the beginning of a work day, I found myself in a good state. 2 hours into the job, however, I felt the brain getting stagnant. Sometimes I had to pause for a moment to make sure I knew what I was reading. As time went by, I became less alert. Sometimes it was a struggle to stay sharp-minded.


At the end of a work day, I was mentally exhausted. Walking out of the building gave me relief. Every night I slept sound.


Good English


I awarded 21 to 25 marks to those essays marked by good English. Good English is first of all idiomatic. I read collocations throughout an excellent essay. Some poor candidates constructed sentences which were correct in grammar but did not sound authentic. Good English is also free of those mistakes which reveal that the writer knows little of the language. Once a lot of such fundamental mistakes were spotted in an essay, it would receive a low grade. One common case was that the writer did not use the predicate verb correctly in tense, voice or number. A candidate should not violate basic grammar rules in order to get decent marks.




Throughout the work, the panel of experts as well as the graders showed leniency towards the essays.  Give credit where credit is due, as they say.


According to the instructions, a candidate is required to cite an incident from his/her life before commenting on the role of smile. Despite that, the boss said that even if no incident was cited, good grades should still be granted as long as good language was found in an essay.


Another example was that an essay should be graded on the basis of its contents rather than the writer’s handwriting. A grader was not allowed to discriminate against an essay written in a careless or untidy hand.


And a ZERO means that the essay was worth absolutely nothing. Credit should be given wherever any worth was detected with an essay—a related sentence for instance.




In my opinion, a worker’s speed should be controlled. It is common sense that reliability would be compromised if a worker went too fast. Luckily the workers who processed over 1,000 papers a day made up a very small minority. My fast performance was 880 papers a day.


About 30% of the papers I did were given a point between zero and 5. That means that those exam candidates knew no English grammar and sentence construction whatsoever. In contrast, I gave a lot of papers a score from 21 to 25. A perfect score 25 does not mean that there were no mistakes at all. Instead it means that the good language of the writing was so impressive that the couple of errors could be overlooked.


As a frontline instructor, I have benefited a lot from this assignment. In my daily work, I will keep up some key concepts. Language practice takes priority over teaching the knowledge of the language. The knowledge should support and facilitate practice. Secondly, a teacher of English should be a living model of the language. He should exploit all the meaningful situations in everyday life to teach and practise the language. English need not be taught and learnt in an English speaking country. We can create a language environment of our own here in China, in our school, where we are.


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