Gaokao: how one exam can set the course of a student’s life in China
Despite its stresses and controversies, the ‘high test’ provides the only chance for less privileged students to make it to the top
China started its gaokao exam season this week, with 9.4 million Chinese students taking the annual national college entrance examinations from Wednesday.
About 3.7 million of these students are expected to eventually enrol in undergraduate examinations after the exams this year, according to the Ministry of Education. The number will be nearly 10,000 more than those who enrolled last year.
Competition remains fierce to gain admission into the country’s top universities, with authorities taking extra measures to prevent cheating, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Since last year, cheating in the can be treated as a criminal offence.
In China, the gaokao is widely considered to be the most important exam, which can make or break a young person’s future. It is also intended to help level the playing field between the country’s rich and poor.
We explain the significance of the college entrance exams in China, its history and the controversies surrounding it.
What is the gaokao?
Gaokao, literally “high test”, is an abbreviation of the much longer official name, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, the academic qualification test for almost all high school graduates hoping to receive an undergraduate education.
The first such standardised examination in the People’s Republic of China was held in 1952 but halted 14 years later chairman Mao Zedong decreed that educated youth – including current President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang – must be “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”.
The examination was restored in 1977 after the disastrous Cultural Revolution came to an end, making this year’s test the 40th anniversary of the restoration of the gaokao. An age restriction on gaokao was scrapped in 2001 and anyone with a high-school diploma can now take the exam.
A record of 10.5 million people sat for the gaokao in 2008 but the number has been declining steadily since then. This year 9.4 million students will sit the exam.
What subjects are included in the gaokao?
The examination covers three compulsory subjects – Chinese, mathematics and English – and one comprehensive subject depending whether the candidate chooses to major in liberal arts or the sciences. The whole examination lasts nine hours over two days starting on June 7. In a very few instances ethnic minority students will need to sit the test in their own language on the 9th.
Why gaokao is so important in China?
The exam is considered the pivotal moment for Chinese secondary students as their scores in large [part determine their future – whether they can go to university, which institutions they will be admitted and consequently what careers await them.
Candidates must perform well in the gaokao to gain admission to the better universities, where graduation guarantees a bright future with status, wealth and even power.
For most Chinese, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, a high score in the gaokao is their only means to significantly alter their fate.
“It’s a very narrow path but it was the only way for me to leave my rural area and prepare for the world,” wrote Yu Minhong, founder of New Oriental Education, a major private language education provider in China. “The gaokao presents many opportunities for children, in rural and urban areas. Without it millions of children from rural backgrounds, including me, would have no hope.”
How do students cope with the most important exam in their life?
The answer is to study, study and study some more, at every possible hour. A lot of students finish their high school studies in the sophomore year and cram for the exam for the whole year. At
Hengshui Middle School in Hebei province, where more than 100 students earned admission to the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities, students have been given IV drips as they study, believing that it will help them with concentration and focus. Girls are given contraceptive pills to delay their periods until after the exam.
How do parents and others pitch in to help while the gaokao is under way?
Parents are even more nervous than their children taking the exam. They book hotels near the exam centres so the children can rest between the two test sessions at noon or avoid being stuck in morning rush hour traffic.
Although it is common for local governments to make special gaokao arrangements, such as restricting traffic near test centres, there have been cases where worried parents in Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong blocked roads for fear passing cars would affect listening comprehension part in English test.
Square dancers voluntarily stop practising on test nights and noisy construction work comes to halt to give candidates some peace. Some mothers wear qipaos to the test centre for luck.
What are the controversies of the gaokao?
The fierce competition and emphasis on test scores have been criticised for putting students and even their teachers and parents under unnecessary stress, and denying teenagers of getting a well-rounded education.
University enrolment quota is distributed to each province or provincial-level municipalities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, based on the candidate’s household registration, which leads to local policies that forbid non-local students taking the exams in the areas where they live as migrants.
This has led to protests by migrant working families demanding the right for their children to take the exams and be considered for enrolment in Beijing and Shanghai. There have also been protests by local parents in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Hubei against the Ministry of Education’s scheme to allocate local enrolment quota to western provinces to promote education fairness.