China experienced a rare moment of hush last weekend. The construction crews were told to take a break, and thousands of traffic police stopped drivers from blaring their horns.
The purpose: to minimise noise levels while millions of students take the gaokao exam.
It was gaokao season again. This year more than 9 million students took the three-day college-entrance exam. The results are the sole criteria in determining college placement in China (see WiC19). Students who perform superlatively can expect to be courted by the nation’s top schools, while the remainder head for spots in provincial universities with peeling paint and less qualified professors.
The 40% of test-takers who fail the exam can retake it again next year.
Given the intense pressure, it’s not surprising that critics have started to question whether the gaokao needs reform. Many say that the rigidity of the test robs students of their creativity and imagination. Nor is it a predictor of success. A study conducted by the China Daily last year revealed that, of the 1,000 top gaokao scorers in the last 30 years, not one had enjoyed an outstanding career in later life.
A growing number of students now seek to avoid the gaokao too. The Economic Observer reported last week that over one million students chose not to sit it last year, according to data from the Ministry of Education. Many enrolled in vocational schools instead saying it’s easier to find a job afterwards. The well-off often choose to study abroad.
More recently a handful of the country’s elite colleges have started offering admissions slots that play down the gaokao score. Universities like Fudan, Tsinghua and Beida now offer their own tests and interviews to determine 5% of their incoming students rather than purely rely on the results of the national exam, says the China Daily.
Others chose to opt out of the test entirely. In March, the South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) grabbed headlines when it admitted 45 students who hadn’t sat the exam. Founded in 2009, SUSTC is the first domestic institution to be allowed to administer itself independently of the Ministry of Education. According to Zhu Qingshi, the school’s founder, SUSTC wanted to offer successful students an alternative to traditional Chinese universities.
Sounds good, but the authorities soon intervened. Xu Mei, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said late last month that, although the ministry had approved the establishment of SUSTC, it had to follow the basic national education rules.
In other words, the students at SUSTC – like everyone else – were required to take the gaokao before entering university.
Li, one of the 45 students that SUSTC had accepted, told China Youth Daily that, despite the government’s warning, he would not take the gaokao, even though that means the government will not recognise his eventual SUSTC diploma.
“Why does it matter? The key to going to school is to acquire real skills,” says Li. “I am not worried about my future. Even though I probably can’t go into research without a diploma, I can be an entrepreneur or work for an NGO. And who knows, maybe I’ll apply to be a commentator for your newspaper!”
A parent from Hubei Province also expressed opposition to the ministry’s stance. “We don’t just go to university for a diploma, so my son definitely won’t make up the exam,” she told Xinhua. “SUSTC is a pilot school for reform, so we have anticipated those difficulties and pressures.”
The country’s netizens were also supportive of the students. Many urged the government to let the school decide its own fate. “The education administration is concerned about the quality of SUSTC and its graduates, as well as its diplomas. This is understandable,” wrote the Beijing-based Guanming Wang. “But in fact, the people who give those matters the most serious concern are these 45 students and their parents. No one will care more than parents about their own child.”
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