Educational Injustice in a High-Stakes Testing Context: A Mixed Methods Study on Rural Migrant Children’s Academic Experiences in Shanghai Public Schools

Research Highlighted:

Yiu, L. (2020). Educational Injustice in a High-Stakes Testing Context: A Mixed Methods Study on Rural Migrant Children’s Academic Experiences in Shanghai Public Schools. Comparative Education Review, 64(3), 498-524.

Dr Lisa Yiu, University of Hong Kong


This mixed method study analyzes rural migrant children’s academic experiences in two Shanghai public schools when 2012 PISA scores were administered. It contributes empirical evidence on how hukou status shapes educational inequality in contemporary China. Since rural migrants are ineligible for the high-stakes test for Shanghai’s senior secondary admission (zhongkao), teachers diverted resources towards urban children at the expense of rural migrants, regardless of academic potential. Such “successful” teaching practices to maximize ranking motivated excessive resource provision to the detriment of urban youth’s development. This article argues that it is only possible to understand these patterns through an inequality theory that explicitly considers the diminished integrity of teaching in high-stakes testing contexts. The framework explains educational injustices when the moral assumption of “good” teaching to benefit a child is no longer valid, with implications on the growing global emphasis on high-stakes testing.


Rural migrant children’s education has emerged as one of the most pressing problems facing contemporary China.  Under the hukou system, a hereditary household registration system that determines Chinese citizens’ access to public services (e.g. education), these young people face educational barriers and may be at risk of developing into an urban underclass.  In response, Shanghai’s equity-focused reforms (2008-11) aimed to dissolve hukou barriers and increase educational opportunity by allowing migrant children to attend public schools for compulsory education. 

Examining rural migrant children’s academic experiences in Shanghai public schools during this reform period provides opportunity to examine hukou inequality in a high-stakes testing context.  In Shanghai, divergent municipal policies towards migrant children’s education intersect with high-stakes testing pressures to situate public schools in a dilemma:  enrolling rural migrant youth who are excluded from the high-stakes zhongkao that has grave school consequences. While Shanghai reforms entitle rural migrant children to access public schools for compulsory education, restrictive post-compulsory educational policies in the city exclude rural migrants from Shanghai’s zhongkao. Thus, schools have little incentive to academically invest in rural migrant children.  

Importantly, research typically overlooks the role of high-stakes testing on rural migrant children’s education in the city, despite the dominance of exam-oriented teaching in China’s education system.  The few exceptions suggest that high-stakes testing is a critical factor in rural migrant children’s inequitable, public school experiences.  This article examines how high stakes testing shapes youths’ academic experiences in two Shanghai middle schools, which enrolled urban and rural migrant youth, during the reforms. 


To examine the extent and ways in which educators provide rural and urban students different learning opportunities and environments within the same school, the predominant framework conceptualizes inequality in terms of ability-grouping, a practice of sorting students based on ability or prior performance into “tracks” to better meet students’ needs through a more homogeneous learning environment.  This inequality framework has two moral assumptions:  1) “good” teaching practices aim to benefit the child, 2) any tracking-induced achievement gap is unintentional because teaching is done to benefit the student.

However, the predominant framework does not explain the inequality patterns in the two investigated Shanghai schools, where a different inequality emerged in response to maximizing ranking. Drawing on sociological theories of public measures, I develop an alternative educational theory to explain how high-stakes testing pressures differentiate students’ academic experiences within the same school when the moral assumption of “good” teaching no longer holds.  In both Shanghai schools, “successful” teaching practices to maximize ranking and consequent resource allocation led to two educational injustices.  First, “successful” teaching  is a source of injustice when educators prioritize ranking above the well-being of all students–urban and rural migrant. Second, in response to ranking pressures, educators in both schools admitted contributing to a widening hukou-achievement gap by diverting resources towards urban youth who “counted” for Shanghai zhongkao, at the expense of rural migrant students who did “not count.” 


I conducted a mixed methods analysis of resource allocation, i.e., the decision-making process by which educators in two Shanghai schools invested instructional resources along hukou lines. School S segregated rural migrants into hukou-based homerooms, in which “urban” and “rural” homerooms were high and low track, respectively. Contrastly, School I sorted rural migrants into integrated homerooms, in which “high ability” and “low ability” were high and low track, respectively. 


An exam-induced inequality 

In response to Shanghai zhongkao pressures, both schools differentiated students into two ranking-oriented categories: “those that counted” (urban) and “those that did not count” (rural migrants). 

Educational injustice against rural migrant children

In both schools, homeroom sorting patterns are not explained by the predominant inequality model of “good” teaching, which expects schools to sort high-achieving rural migrant students into appropriately challenging high-track homerooms to develop their academic potential. Rather, homeroom track placement revealed a puzzle: both schools sorted high-achieving rural migrant children into low-track homerooms. 

Due to zhongkao exclusion, educators in both schools intentionally prioritized the academic development of students who “counted” (urban youth), at the expense of high-achieving children who “didn’t count” (migrant youth).  Both schools thus de-prioritized the academic growth of high-achieving rural migrant students, despite high scores indicating academic potential. These students were sorted into low-track homerooms, which provided a lower quality learning climate compared to high-track homerooms.  For example, School I educators sought to “spur on” low-achieving urban youth through a learning climate positively influenced by high-achieving, migrant classmates. As educators in both schools used “successful” teacher practices to maximize ranking, they admitted homeroom sorting neglected migrant children’s academic needs.

Educational injustice against urban children 

While homeroom placement privileges urban students’ academic development compared with their rural migrant peers, both schools’ label of “those who count” overlooks “successful” teaching as a form of injustice to urban students.  In both schools, urban students received excessive amounts of instructional time in-between class periods and after school. The instructional purpose of providing additional classroom teaching was to establish urban youth’s strong academic foundation in grades 6-7 for the accelerated learning of grades 8 and 9. However, teachers invested in urban youth’s academic growth at the expense of non-academic development. Consequently, Shanghai urban youth expressed anxiety from test pressures and considered test scores to represent their value.  


This paper has two significant implications for China’s policymakers, scholars, and educators.  First, findings contribute to our understanding of hukou inequality in contemporary China. In Shanghai’s high-stakes testing context, the hukou institution has become a school marker of whether to academically invest in a child.   Shanghai findings converge with global data to reveal an exam-induced inequality in high stakes testing contexts, where teachers systematically prioritize students whose academic development will increase school ranking.

Second, I problematize the predominant conception of “educational equity” for China’s rural migrant children. Policymakers and researchers generally define educational equity for China’s rural migrant children as equal access to “quality” education (e.g. public school); such a conception motivated the Shanghai reforms highlighted in this study. However, my findings reveal the distorted understanding of educational equity that arises when we assume that teaching practices are “good” in  high-stakes testing context. As Shanghai educators used “successful” teacher practices to maximize ranking, they excessively invested in urban students’ academic growth at the expense of non-academic development. The education that urban students receive should no longer be regarded as the educational equity model for rural migrant students. When maximizing ranking is the purpose of education, teaching itself constitutes a form of injustice to all students. I thus propose an “equity” re-conceptualization towards whole-child development and the re-centering of teaching on the child.

Author Bio

Lisa Yiu is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong. Her equity-focused research applies critical and sociology theory to investigate diversity and inclusion issues for immigrant-origin youth in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Her work, which has been recognized by the Taiwanese Ministry of Education, is motivated and critically enriched by her experiences as an inner-city teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District and English-as-a-Second-Language teacher in mainland China.  Publications include Harvard Educational Review and The China Quarterly. She can be contacted via email:

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