Very testing times

College entrance exam battles lockdown issues


Sitting the gaokao

Sitting the gaokao, China’s annual college entrance exam, is stressful at the best of times. Anxious parents gather outside the examination venues as the police redirect traffic in a bid to create silence for the test-takers.

Students sitting the exam in many cities this year face additional layers of pressure: they must wear masks, show proof of negative virus tests and pass temperature checks before they can even sit down at their desks to take the papers.

This year’s round of examinations, which were held this week, was another massive undertaking in logistical terms, with 11.93 million students sitting the test across 330,000 examination rooms across the country.

The circumstances were unusual: day one of the exams was the first time that many students in the Chinese capital Beijing had seen their classmates for weeks, for instance, following long periods in which schools have been closed.

And for kids in districts still locked down by local governments it has even meant taking the test in individual hotel rooms, with no chance of going home each day after the examinations are over.

More than 800 students across the country were scheduled to sit the exam in quarantine hotels or other temporary quarantine sites, the Ministry of Education also acknowledged.

In some parts of Beijing students in controlled areas were dispatched to designated test centres on Monday to spend the week inside a ‘closed loop’ system, China Daily reports.

The centres, many of which have been set up in hotels, had been fitted out to resemble the examination rooms with which students are more familiar. Even the light bulbs have been switched to match those in the school environment. “This will help students feel as if they are studying and taking exams in a school classroom, so that they can do their best during the exam,” explained an invigilator at a test centre in the Chaoyang district of the capital.

This year’s arrangements have been challenging for education ministry officials, who make much of how the gaokao is designed to create a level playing field in which the best performers win places at the best universities, whatever their social or economic backgrounds.

This claim to fairness was one of the factors in the clampdown on cramming schools last year on the basis that they were giving kids from wealthier families too much of an edge.

Yet parents who regard the gaokao as a make-or-break moment for the career prospects of their children will be watching closely for signs that they have been disadvantaged by the circumstances this year.

Exam takers in Shanghai won’t sit their gaokao until July 7, for instance, with students starting to return to school for in-person classes this week after two months of lockdown in the city.

The unusual conditions are the latest challenge for what has been christened as the ‘epidemic generation’ – students who have suffered from pandemic-related disruption for nearly three years of their high school experience, with constant Covid tests, campus closures and long periods of online tuition.

Some commentators have applauded this year’s cohort in their endeavours, saying that the experience will hold them in good stead in the years ahead.

“The psychological tolerance and life experience of these students are unique, and the ability to positively face the changes in the environment and deal with problems has also been greatly improved,” Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Shanghai-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times.

But others queried whether this year’s students will especially stand out or whether the heightened difficulties around this summer’s gaokao are really making it much more stressful than for early generations of test takers.

“Every generation has their own mission. The current exams are highly competitive, but at the beginning of the resumption of the exams [in the late 1970s after the end of the Cultural Revolution], the young people took the exams because they didn’t have many choices. It’s hard to say whether gaokao has become harder or easier now than it was several decades ago,” Zhang Yiwu, a Peking University professor, told the Global Times.

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