Burden of China’s college entrance test triggers wide debate

Critics question the value of the ‘gaokao’ as it leads to psychological strain on students

By Edward Wong  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJIN

Wed, Jul 04, 2012 - Page 9

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.

Defenders of the gaokao, which has its roots in the imperial exam system, say the test is a crucial component in a meritocratic education system, allowing students from poorer backgrounds or rural areas to compete for spots in top universities. However, the odds are heavily against those students, since a quota system based on residency means it is much easier for applicants in cities like Beijing and Shanghai to get into universities in those cities, which are generally considered the best in China. Peking University, among the most prestigious universities in China, does not release admission rates, but Zhong said in his television program that a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had one in 190 odds, or 0.5 percent. (Harvard had a 5.9 percent acceptance rate this year.)

Even supporters of the gaokao system acknowledge the level of anxiety involved in taking the exam. It is not uncommon for Chinese to have recurring nightmares about cramming for and taking the gaokao, years after they have graduated from university. Many schools in China set aside the final year of high school as a cram year for the test. Yang said that, during his senior year, he spent 13 hours a day studying. He also said his parents even rented an apartment for him near his school so he would not have to waste time traveling back and forth to his parents’ home.

“When I was getting close to the test, pretty much all I did, besides eating and sleeping, was study,” said Zhao Xiang, a high school graduate from Zunyi, Guizhou Province.

He said that before the gaokao students’ lives were full of suffering.

“Sometimes it was pressure from my family, sometimes it was the expectations from my teacher, and sometimes it was pressure from myself. In the period before the gaokao I was constantly in a really bad mood. I was really confused,” he said.

A report by Xinhua news agency said that of the 9.15 million students who took the gaokao this year, about 75 percent would be admitted to universities in China. Once the students get their scores, they submit a list of universities to education officials, ranking them in order of preference. Administrators at the universities then look at the students’ scores and decide whether to admit them for the coming academic year.

Many universities do set aside a few slots for students admitted on the basis of special merit, thus allowing leeway for students who do not take the gaokao or have low scores. Admission in those cases can be based on factors like musical talent, foreign language skills or athletic prowess, similar to universities in the US. Ethnic minority students sometimes get an advantage.

Of course, children of senior Chinese Communist Party members, government leaders and prominent businesspeople have their own back channels to admission, a phenomenon that exists, too, in the West, though perhaps not to the same degree.

There has also been a growing trend of Chinese students applying to universities outside China. Many Chinese parents — including the party’s top leaders — not only value a degree from a foreign university over one from a Chinese university, but also want their children to avoid the stress of taking the gaokao. An Education Ministry report last year said the number of high school students from top cities leaving the country to pursue higher education overseas rose by 20 percent each year from 2008 to last year.

Gao Haicheng, a junior high-school student from Kunming, said he planned to apply to universities abroad rather than to ones in China. Though avoiding the gaokao exam is not his main aim, Gao said the exam “is a big problem in China’s education system.”

“In China, they only use marks to explain something,” he added, referring to the emphasis placed on the gaokao score.

Each year, cheating scandals become the talk of China. One common tactic was for students to give their identification cards to look-a-likes, hired to take the test. As a result, many provinces installed fingerprint scanners at test-centers. In 2008, three girls in Jiangsu Province were caught with mini- cameras inside their bras. Their aim was to transmit images of the exam to people outside the classroom who would then provide them with the exam answers. This year, the big scandal involved students in Huanggang, Hubei Province, which in the past decade was famous for churning out students with high scores. Last month, several dozen students were caught for using small monitors, costing nearly US$2,500, that resembled erasers and that allowed the students to receive electronic messages providing exam answers.

Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University who has studied the education system, said the main problem was the lack of slots for students at universities. Despite a boom in university construction in China in recent years, there is still a shortage. This year, there are 7 million university slots, 2 million slots short of the number of gaokao test takers. The gap was much wider in 2006 —in that year there were 5.3 million slots for 9.5 million test takers. The drop in the number of students taking the gaokao can be attributed to demographic trends in China and the rise in the number of students opting to study abroad.

“Many people criticize the gaokao, but I think they somewhat miss the most crucial point, which is that the supply of slots for students at decent academic institutions falls short of the demand from the public,” Zhang said.

Students who have received their gaokao scores and are now submitting their choices for universities expect to hear the results this month. Yang said that he had put down the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology as his top choice. However, he said that if he had done better than his score of 517, out of a possible 750, he might have put down the Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin.

“I did the best in my class, so I’m pretty happy with the result,” he said. “So are my parents and most of my friends. However, it’s not high enough to get me into the school I’m longing to attend.”

Additional reporting by Christy Khoshaba and Jacob Fromer

Note: names of students unfindable. couldn’t even find the talk show host