High-stakes testing doesn’t get any higher than the gaokao

Summer heat always reminds me of my high school classroom. During the last months of my senior year, I probably spent more time in that classroom than at home, studying alongside my 45 classmates in preparation for the final ordeal, gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination that takes place only once a year.

To understand the differences between the Chinese and American educational systems, start with one of major shaping forces for education, the college selection process. In the U.S., a student is evaluated by admission offices using various measurements, but in China, the admission decision is made based on one and only one measurement: the score from gaokao.

Every June, all college-aspiring high school graduates take the two-day exam at the same time, no matter which province he or she is from. A few days after students get their scores, universities release their threshold scores for admission. If a student’s gaokao score passes the score of the college he or she applied to, they will be admitted. Otherwise, the student will have to seek a college with a lower threshold score.

Since students’ applications are reduced to one standardized test score, high school in China is exam-oriented and drill-intensive. Many schools extend teaching hours as much as possible so that their students have an edge over others in gaokao. In a notorious example, students at one school live under military-style management, required to study more than 15 hours a day, almost seven days a week.

So it’s not surprising that Chinese students tend to perform well on standardized tests. Such academic traditions strangle creativity and critical thinking abilities. But on the other hand, top students usually have a very solid understanding of the subjects and are extremely hard-working.

In schools with fewer resources, physical education, extracurriculars, hobbies and anything that does not directly contribute to a higher score are downplayed. As a middle schooler I went to school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and had classes on weekends as well. I simply did not have time to do anything else.

I am fortunate to have experienced both educational styles. I was selected for a pilot program after gaokao, and won a scholarship to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. I am constantly impressed by how articulate, creative and well-rounded most of my classmates are. I most appreciate that they value the learning process of class projects and group work, instead of treating it as means to an end. Most of them are passionate about their major, motivated to learn and improve. Having been buried in exams and textbooks for so many years, I struggled a great deal with formulating my own ideas and writing academic essays. On the other hand, as an economics and statistics tutor at the University of Michigan, I find that my students have a difficult time with basic calculations, which can be easily improved with more practice.

It (mostly) works for China

Despite its disadvantages, the Chinese system may be the best one for the country, considering its current realities. For many underprivileged students, participating in gaokao and getting into a college is the only chance for social mobility they have. Everyone is judged the same, regardless of background.

Students from rural areas may not have as much support as students in the city, but it is possible for them to make up the difference with hard work. The strict regulations for gaokao prohibit cheating in any form, and the government strives to ensure that gaokao is one of the areas untainted by corruption.

A college education is the best way for an individual to get out of poverty because college is much more affordable in China than in the U.S. The tuition for one of the best universities in mainland China, Tsinghua University, is around 5000 yuan ($746) per year, and housing is around 1500 yuan ($224) per year. Universities do not usually offer scholarships upon admission, but almost all offer merit-based aid during the school year. Most students are able to graduate from college without significant financial burden.

And shortcomings in the gaokao system are mitigated somewhat. The threshold scores for a university are different in different provinces, since educational resources are unevenly distributed. Students from minority ethnic groups, especially those whose native languages are not Chinese, can have bonus points added to their final scores. Since 2003, the nation’s department of education has been encouraging prominent universities to implement independent recruitment, aiming to provide students with outstanding achievement a road to higher ed other than standardized tests.

China needs to constantly negotiate the conflict between reaching as many students as possible and educating students to be the best, the most innovative and the most enterprising. The challenge is becoming more salient as China tries to shift its economic backbone from manufacturing to high-tech and innovative enterprises. Gaokao may not be optimal, but it is functioning under China’s social and economic realities.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Sat, 10/22/2016 - 3:30pm
Thank you Ms. Peiyu Yu, your observations and the way you articulate them provides us with good food for thought. I hope you continue to write about what you observation [sending it to Bridge for us to read and consider], especially as you see learning and cultures in your work. I think those are two areas we under appreciate here and we can gain when we hear about how other cultures value and approach learn. There is a lot we can glean from this article; it takes effort to learn, it takes the commitment [grit] of the children to make that effort to learn necessary knowledge, it is important that the children believe they can achieve their goals if they work harder/smarter, and that the culture the child lives in has a significant impact on how they view education, and what they will do to learn. Just as the Chinese nation has to decide what they want [highly disciplined and knowledgeable student body or a creative adult population], we have to decide what we want [a more disciplined, grittier, more knowledge based population or one less disciplined, less self-confident, and less knowledgeable population]. And in both cases what will be done to achieve the desired results. I suggest reading Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, and Thomas Sowell’s “Wealth, Poverty, Politics”. The former addresses what it takes to learn, to succeed. The latter addresses the impact of culture on the will/grit to learn/to succeed.
Sat, 10/22/2016 - 5:41pm
Everyone is judged the same, regardless of background. Students from rural areas may not have as much support as students in the city, but it is possible for them to make up the difference with hard work. The strict regulations for gaokao prohibit cheating in any form, and the government strives to ensure that gaokao is one of the areas untainted by corruption. That is not what I have read, people with connections especially with higher ups in the Communist party get special favors and treatment with the process.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 10/23/2016 - 11:26am
Interesting article. I wonder what percentage of children/students in China get an education up to high school and take the gaokao. I wonder what percentage of students/kids go on to University. It is interesting also to see how well education is working in a Communist Country.
Mon, 10/24/2016 - 3:59pm
Good point on how well education is working in China. You might raise that same point for America. If you believe that self-confidence encourages a person to make their own decisions and if you see how China has been moving to a more individual choices consumption society, then I would say education is working well in China. The best indicator of self-confidence is how students are confident enough to invest so many hours each week in preparation for the gaokao. If they didn’t believe that they had the capacity or the opportunity they wouldn’t make the effort. By the same token those kids that believe that the system/others will provide them opportunities/success then they seem to lack self-confidence and are less likely to invest the time/effort into their learning. Could the latter be part of the explanation of the income/education gap we hear so much about. Could people be down playing individual responsibilities/efforts and overplaying the income/education gap in the name of greater reliance on the system/government/others?