If you’ve been in China for a while you’ve probably noticed that there are some words that instantly quiet down a group of Chinese people. Utter ‘Mao’ or ‘Cultural Revolution’ and you may notice discussion grind to a halt but the effect of these words is nothing compared to the pained silence that falls over the group when the words ‘gaokao’ are spoken.
The gaokao (高考 | gāokǎo) – literally ‘high test’ – is the biggest test in the world: every year around 10 million young Chinese just about to graduate from high school take the test that will determine their future; and, at least for the students and their families, it is the most important test they will ever take. It Grips the entire nation, every year from June 6-9th or so cities quiet down, the din of horns recedes, parents take their children to hotels near the test site to avoid traffic jams and aid concentration, and it starts to feel like a Wild West town right before the shooting begins.
“Test is in session, please don’t honk”
While the gaokao is not the first big test Chinese schoolchildren take – there are also tests to enter elementary and middle school - it is the biggest. The results of the exam determine the student’s entrance to college, or not, their future major, and which university they can attend.
There is an element of gambling to the process. Before they ever sit down with pencils poised and butterflies in their stomachs, the students must select their eventual path: sciences or humanities; and select their choices for schools. There are changes being made in regard to what students must decide before they test and different provinces have different systems – in Beijing you can see your scores after your test but before you pick a school while in Shandong province you must make your choices without seeing your scores.
Students take the science test
Betting on your own performance can be difficult. Some students go for the safer picks and later find out they tested high enough to get into the school and program they most desired. Others pick programs with score requirements above what they end up testing and end up accepted to none. These students can either go straight to work or retest a year later.
The history of entrance exams in China dates back to the birth of modern universities and to the tenets of Confucianism. The gaokao emerged in its current incarnation right after the Cultural Revolution. The first gaokao was administered in 1977 and because of the chaos and damage to the educational system during the previous decade students of all ages and educational backgrounds were allowed to test. In years since, the Ministry of Education has been in charge of administering the exam although the test differs from region to region.
The very first gaokao, Beijing, 1977
In an attempt to make up for the differences in school systems in different areas the test content and score requirements vary from place to place. In areas with fewer universities you actually need a higher score because the competition is greater. As a result students in Beijing, which is filled with universities, need lower scores than their country cousins even though they have probably received some of the country’s best primary and secondary education.
Testing curriculum in Xinjiang and Tibet is supposed to be more lax when compared to wealthier provinces and so some parents try to move their families to these regions so their children can take advantage of the relaxed requirements. As standards are also much lower for foreigners some families try to emigrate and gain citizenship abroad so their children can return to take the test as foreign nationals.
The psychological pressure on the students is brutal. For years parents enroll them in weekend academies and spend loads of money on private tutors. University education in China is essentially free – you have to pay a fee for books and housing – but the amount of money many parents spend on their children’s education is mind-boggling when compared to their means. Paying 100 yuan or more an hour for a foreign English tutor is a major investment for even middle-class Chinese.
The Chinese reads: dizzy, vomiting, insomnia, schizophrenia
The test is two or three days long and covers a wide variety of subjects. Regardless of your major all students must take the Chinese, math, and foreign language tests, which alone are already six and a half hours of testing. If you have selected the humanities then you will also be tested on history, geography, and political education – essentially a civics class. Students entering the science fields must take physics, chemistry, and biology.
In the west, and perhaps other parts of the east as well, our college entrance process is quite different. While most American students take the SAT or ACT the scores are not the only factor involved, and depending on the school, maybe not particularly important. Grades, entrance essays, examples of volunteering or participation on extracurricular activities also influence the admission panels.
One could argue that this entrance process exemplifies the differences in Chinese and western education and results it produces. While we often criticize the Chinese educational system for its emphasis on rote education the fact of the matter is American students rank ridiculously low in international math and science testing and a sizable percentage of the students studying advanced science or technology in the United States are from abroad.
But while it is easy to talk about the advantages of rote learning from a distance, when it comes down to it no one wants to go through the interminable (the average student starts priming for it when they’re 12 years old) brutal gaokao process. Which is why, when the word gaokao is uttered to a Chinese person be they student, parent, or teacher; an oppressive gloom falls over the group as they remember years and years spent cramming for the two or three day test that determined their lives.
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