In recent days, millions of high-school students across China have been furiously dialing telephone hotlines or gathering with family members around the home computer in a nail-biter of a ritual, not unlike that of waiting for a winning lottery number.
In this case, the number is the score for what is generally considered the single most important test any Chinese citizen can take — the gaokao (高考), or college entrance examination. High school seniors took the test over two to three days early last month. Now, the tests have been graded, the numbers tabulated and the results released, region-by-region. In the final step, college selections are being made in a process that stretches from late last month into this month.
“When the results came out on June 23, it happened to be my 18th birthday,” said Yang Taoyuan, who lives with his parents in Kunming, Yunnan Province. “We had a family get-together on that day, and everybody was there when we called over to a hotline to find out about my scores.”
In a country where education is so highly prized, the score that one earns at the end of high school is believed to set the course of one’s life. The score determines not just whether a young person will attend a Chinese university, but also which one — a selection that, many Chinese say, has a crucial bearing on career prospects.
However, debate appears to have grown more heated lately over the value of the gaokao. Critics say the exam promotes the kind of rote learning that is endemic to education in China and that stifles creativity. It leads to enormous psychological strain on students, especially in their final year of high school. In various ways, the system favors students from large cities and well-off families, even though it was designed to create a level playing field among all Chinese students.
Last month, a 12-minute television segment railing against the exam, presented by Zhong Shan, a well-known talk show host in Hunan Province, gained popularity on the Web and became a focal point for fury against the gaokao in particular, and the Chinese educational system in general. Also widespread on the Internet were photographs taken in a Hubei Province classroom of students hooked up to intravenous drips of amino acids while cramming for the exam.
Perhaps most shocking to the public was the story of Liu Qing, a student from Xian, Shaanxi Province, whose family and teachers hid from her for two months the fact that her father had died, so as not to upset her before the exam. Liu, according to Chinese news media reports, did not hear the news about her father until after she had completed the test.
“We Chinese are indeed the most intelligent people in the world,” Zhong said near the end of his widely broadcast show. “Is there no way at all we can avoid having the younger generation, the future of our nation, grow up in such a fearful, desperate and cruel atmosphere?”
Standardized testing is common throughout the world, and students and parents in nations like the US, Britain and France also complain loudly about the weight that admissions committees at universities place on such tests. However, the university admissions process in those countries is still considered much more flexible than that in Asian nations. The emphasis on entrance exams in China, South Korea and Japan induces widespread fear and frustration, leading to an increasing number of parents from elite families to look for an alternative to taking the gaokao, like sending their children to schools abroad.