The Gaokao


Articles by western writers about the gaokao, China’s annual college entrance examination, always lead off with anecdotes; stories of parents crowding around schools in nervous vigil, of cities enforcing two-day long construction suspensions and noise-pollution bans, of tearful late arrivals begging on their knees to be let in, of taxi drivers given special right-of-way dispensations if carrying test-takers test-centers, of criminal rings busted for selling thousand dollar cheating apparatuses, of girls taking pills to insure their physical and academic schedules do not accidentally align, of students committing suicide in desperation. In short: Collective hysteria.

To westerners—certainly an American like myself—there is something mad about the test. Our own SATs are stressful, but they are not the be all and end all. A middling score combined with obvious talent—say sporting prowess or community involvement—can open as many or more doors than mere good grades.

Yet China is not like this. Whereas social life in American school revolves in large part around extra-curricular activities, for Chinese no such thing exists. School can last over ten hours a day, five days a week. Weekends are full of English classes, music lessons, and math preparation. Evenings consist of studying, watching tv, and temporarily escaping stress through online gaming and chat.

Years of school lead up to the gaoako and amid an array of statistics—9.5 million test takers, 6 million spots, a 68% acceptance rate for university—one stark number explains it all: 70,000 of this year’s college graduates are still unemployed. Over the past decade, in addition to the boom in apartments and factories, there has been a boom in universities. Whereas 1 million Chinese graduated in 1998, 6.3 million did last year. Job creation is not quite keeping pace and the gap in quality between universities is seen as being the crucial difference. Get into a good school and a job is assured, get into a second tier university and nothing is certain. (The five year olds whom I teach English to may not realize it, but they are already fighting for their futures.)

Tests as the sole portal to advancement are a Chinese tradition dating back nearly 1500 years. The test in its current form dates to 1978 when Deng Xiaoping reintroduced it as part of his reforms. Initially controlled entirely by the Ministry of Education, its devising has been handed over to the provinces during the subsequent years. Depending on the province, students must select their universities before or after the test. This often results in a student doing better than necessary for the school he chooses or, even worse, a low score preventing a student from attending the schools he has listed.

Universities for their part set quotas of how many students will be accepted from each province, the lion’s share given to their own provinces. Test scores are the main criterion for choosing who makes the cut. Other (marginal) considerations include minority status and success in various academic competitions.

For years the exam was held in July, but for the past several years it has been administered in June as to avoid the intense summer heat that blankets China.

The test itself is nine hours long and divided into three required topics: Chinese, Math, and a foreign language. Six other topics (Chemistry, Physics, Biology, History, Politics, and Geography) are usually chosen in addition. The most head-scratching part may be the essay portion where students are required to expand on a prompt. Localities can design their own—Shaanxi’s offered an anecdote about how goldfish only grow as big as their bowls and asked students to ruminate on the connection of environment and success—or they can use the nationally provided prompts. This year’s prompts called for students to discuss light reading or to expand on the saying, “Why chase mice when there are fish to eat?”

Abstract as this many sound, it offers room for a modicum of creativity. Most of the test is directly dependent on a student’s aptitude for rote memorization. The persistent criticism of the Chinese education system is its emphasis on teacher-centered learning, the test both reflects and privileges this style of education—even essay responses are the result of endless studying of rhetoric structure.

The overall score is out of 750. Students attempting to enter the nation’s best schools—like Beijing’s Tsinghua University need scores between 660 and the low 700s to even have a sliver of hope. By contrast, equivalent programs in Xi’an require scores in the high 400s. With such fierce competition, there is obvious benefit to those whose parents can pay for expensive after-school prep classes.

Yet, if the goal is to equal the playing field for students, the alternatives are not particularly satisfying. Although China’s education and test policies may not encourage outside-the-box thinking, few from western countries can argue with a straight face that their own countries do any better at helping the poor rise up or limiting the benefits that flow from wealth and position.

If China looks to rags-to-riches success stories as evidence that the system is working, many in the upper-middle class are increasingly less convinced. One last statistic is important to consider: Last year as millions of Chinese youths struggled to get into the best national universities, nearly 250,000 opted to go abroad to school instead.