Why The Gaokao Test Makes Little Sense to Foreign Teachers in China

Why The Gaokao Test Makes Little Sense to Foreign Teachers in China
Apr 18, 2019 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang , eChinacities.com

Summer is almost here. I can tell because of the rising temperatures and the sudden urgency of my students over syllabus and exams. Students who were mediocre all year are now trying, by any means necessary, to bring their grades up in order to pass the TOEFL or the SAT. This is nothing compared to those trying to pass the Gaokao, China’s domestic high school exam, however. Here’s why I think this test makes little sense to foreign teachers in China.

As I work at an international high school, my students don’t have to worry about passing the notoriously grueling and unforgiving Gaokao test like the rest of China’s teens. Instead, they all have their eyes on a place at a top US university, maybe even a scholarship if they’re lucky.

My students, although predominantly Chinese, study Advanced Placement classes from the US. They learn how to distinguish between similes and metaphors in Literature, which oftentimes leads to a crash courses in Western history. “What’s a Protestant?” a student asked me recently, which led to a quick lesson on the Pope, Luther and Henry VIII and his six wives.

In the SAT literature test my students may be asked to identify a “sardonic tone” or explain the meaning of words like “apparition,” “appellation” and “apartheid”. Meanwhile, their counterparts in normal Chinese schools are struggling with the difference between “angel” and “angle”. At the same time, however, these Gaokao kids are much more stressed and arguably working harder.

For most Chinese high school students, the Gaokao university entrance exam is the one major determining factor in their lives. It will dictate whether they become a college student or a taxi driver. If they are admitted to college at all, it will dictate whether or not they’ll find themselves in the hallowed halls of Beijing University or relegated to some obscure agricultural institute. The significance of the Gaokao cannot be understated. Students prepare their entire lives for three days of tests that will either make or break them.

The idea that a single test can be so important is strange to most foreign teachers in China. When I occasionally hear about students committing suicide over low Gaokao scores, I always felt it’s such a waste. After all, in America you can go to college at 18 or at 38, and if your high school grades aren’t up to par, there’s always community college.

The American Dream is full of stories about people defying tremendous odds, getting an education and rising above their circumstances. China, however, has fewer of these stories, especially for kids that didn’t pass the Gaokao.

While it is possible to resit the Gaokao, the process is not simple, and the further you get from high school the harder it becomes to do well on a test that basically covers everything you should have learned by year 12. Moreover, the Gaokao is dauntingly black and white, with very little room for interpretation and error.

You pass, or you don’t. There’s no coursework, there are no recommendation letters that might persuade university deans to give you a chance, and even a high GPA can’t save you. It’s quantitative in the extreme. Some people just don’t test well, no matter how intelligent.

Ironically, as my Chinese students prepare for life without the Gaokao — taking the SAT, building up a portfolio of work and participating in volunteer programs in order to be of interest to American collages — there are those in the States who think the emphasis on testing in the Chinese system is something to emulate.

My mom, an elementary school teacher in the US, recently wrote me a letter lamenting how badly her class performed on their standardized tests. Although still not quite as game-changing as the Gaokao, standardized tests are no laughing matter in America these days. When I was in school they were simply a way for teachers to objectively evaluate each student’s progress. Now they’ve become much more important, both in the future of the student and the school.

Having experienced both systems, I have to say I don’t like the Gaokao. Students who compulsively study for one test that will shape their future end up with much more of a narrow education.

They never learn about anything that’s not on the test. They can explain scientific theories, but they can’t formulate their own hypothesis. Most importantly, they do not encounter the joy of learning for learning’s sake.

The big difference between the Chinese and Western education systems is that in China, the emphasis is on the result, while in the West, the emphasis is more on the journey. Developing a joy aoflearning is a skill in and of itself, and there’s no way for a Gaokao to measure or provide for that.

In closing, I want to wish the millions of Chinese kids currently preparing for their college entrance exams, whether it be the Gaokao or otherwise, the best of luck. However, I also hope that those who don’t achieve their desired scores will remember that there is more value to their education than a number on a paper.

I hope they will think back on their high school years with fondness, remember a teacher who made them consider a math problem in a new light, an English phrase that touched them, or a historic story that captured their imagination. These are the true gifts that education gives us — worth much more than any test score.

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Keywords: foreign teachers in China


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The pain starts after the gaokao, no control of your future, I'm sorry to major in English you needed a 640, but you can major in urban planning, or perhaps find a different university to attend. I'm trying to understand your application for Mizzow here in Missouri, so you went to a college that let you major in English instead of Architecture, and now you want to get a Masters degree in Architecture and a 3 year plan with some undergraduate course also required to study what you were not allowed to study after your gaokao. You can't change your major or university without severe problems, great system you have there. Next friend you have tell them to go to BYU in America and they take the gaokao score, after a year transfer to a place and a program you really like.

Apr 24, 2019 07:31 Report Abuse