Testing times

Would you pass the gaokao?

Testing times

Can't figure it out

Most WiC readers will not have sat an examination for a while, although a few more might break out in a cold sweat in recalling the experience.

In terms of academic pressure, few tests are more intense than the annual National Higher Education Entrance Examination, which have been running across China this week.

The national exam is colloquially known as the gaokao (kao means test, and gao means high, so the term supposedly points to the exam’s difficulty). Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language are mandatory and students then select three further subjects. Grades are scored on a scale up to 750, with 500 or above normally securing a university place. The top performers – the zhuangyuan – usually opt for courses at places like Peking University in Beijing or Fudan in Shanghai.

The gaokao is a “make-or-break” moment for millions of Chinese students, says the China Daily. The perception is that the successful group has a good chance of a white-collar career but that the rest face a more grinding, blue-collar future.

But the critics worry that the gaokao so dominates the educational system that it stifles creative thinking. Measuring 12 years of education with a three-day concertina of tests encourages rote learning rather than a more practical, rounded education.

Nonsense, counter the exam’s backers. Yes, the exam might not always promote individual thinking. But its raw competitiveness makes it as objective and egalitarian as possible. It doesn’t matter if you are a farmer’s daughter or the son of a powerful apparatchik – if you score well, you will get into university.

In fact, the system is not quite as uniform as its proponents claim, as the test is modified to recognise the quality of local education. Shanghai students gripe that entrants from Tibet and Xinjiang get easier questions, for instance. And there is a national quota system that ensures that students from poorer provinces can get into the better universities too.

All the same, competition for places is still intense, and the exam process is described in Chinese style as “A thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses across a single log bridge”.

In fact, the volume of gaokao entrants doubled to 10.5 million in the six years to 2008. The number of university places on offer has increased too. About 60% of those who sit the exam end up going into higher education – much better than the 5% of applicants who gained university places in 1977.

This year, however, the number of students sitting the exam actually fell to 10.2 million, perhaps undermining some of the gaokao’s reputation for life-changing importance.

The Shanghai Daily says this could be because at least a fifth of last year’s 5.6 million graduates are still to find jobs. The People’s Daily agrees, wondering if the current downturn could shatter the “employment myth” of a college degree.

But for those students that have been sharpening their pencils, the gaokao remains an all-encompassing experience, in which much of China goes into exam lockdown. Administrators involved in drafting questions are sent into seclusion from late April. The police escort examination papers to and from the 66,000 test venues, and scan exam halls for illicit communications equipment.

On exam days themselves, bus routes are altered to allow for quiet. Parents take days off work to gather outside exam venues, willing their children to succeed.

In the days following the test, the newspapers mull over model answers to the essay composition questions, some of which seem surprisingly open-ended for a nation whose students’ supposedly lack creativity.

Here’s a sample question: “‘The drizzle dampens clothes but cannot be seen; flowers fall to the ground without a sound’. Write an essay of your choice.”

Feel the cold sweat returning yet?

Keeping Track: Last week we reported on China’s phenomenally competitive college entrance exam, the gaokao. In Songyuan City it has emerged that one disreputable teacher sold ‘cheating devices’ to 27 students ahead of the exam. The teacher, Liu Yanhua, promised to give answers to questions through the radio receivers during the exam. Apparently, she was paid Rmb400,000 ($59,000 ) by the students’ parents. (19 June 2009)

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