How China's college entrance exam keeps students too busy to ask questions

Pass/fail education (part 2)

How China's college entrance exam keeps students too busy to ask questions


“My parents are quite traditional,” said Leona Jin, a translation and interpretation major studying in Shanghai. “So they think like the majority of the parents: that the gaokao is a decisive point in your life. They tell their children to work very hard.”

Jin and fellow students Mei Lingjie and Michelle Yin sat in the corner of a brick-walled student lounge lit by wide windows on the campus of East China Normal University (ECNU). They were discussing the National Higher Education Entrance Exam, often shortened to Higher Ed. Exam, or gaokao in Mandarin. In September of 2014, the party mouthpiece People's Daily called China's exam-based education the "least terrible" system, one that at least guarantees fairness. All three ECNU students agreed that was a fair assessment.

“We feel as if everything has paid off,” Mei said. “I look back on [the time spent studying] with pride because I did a good job.” After her friends' laughter had quieted down, she continued: “We have adapted to this system for so long. Some say that there are things in their children that can’t be measured by the gaokao, but they can’t do anything about it.”

Like Mei, many are willing to accept the status quo because they view it as the fairest structure available for maximizing social mobility. The evidence suggests otherwise: China today is one of the most socially immobile nations in the world, and the gaokao-based system perpetuates these barriers by giving disadvantaged parents and students little time to think of anything beyond a single three-digit test score.

Single-minded studies

The gaokao boils down a student’s intellectual capacity to a score that has become the sole focal point of Chinese education. High schools accommodate the exam by devoting the entirety of student's third and final year to test preparation.

Sun Xinxin, a senior at Shanghai Publishing and Printing College, recalled the grueling lead-up to the exam: For the first two years gaokao studies occupied every other weekend—leaving only four days off a month. Study time expanded to all but a single weekend in her final year. Some boarded at school to get another hour of morning study time in before the students who commuted arrived to begin at 6:30 am. (Sun couldn't afford to board.) From there it's another fifteen-and-a-half hours before the school day is done at around 10pm. Every day. For a total of 36 weeks.

For those that don't pass the ensuing three-day exam the first time around, there are four options:

1. Pay to join an intensive, year-long study program to cram for retaking the test;

2. Attend an vocational school;

3. Study for the American SAT in hopes of attending a U.S. university;

4. Find work.

Sun said if she hadn’t passed the first time around, she would have gone to cram school.

Textbook cases

The exam can have serious social implications as well. Jin, one of the ENCU students, suggested it wasn't uncommon for students to commit suicide if they failed. "They think they will be losers forever," she said. "It’s sad."

How common such suicides really are is hard to pin down. Chinese media reports on the phenomenon seemed to peak in 2012 before tapering off the next year, though the state-run China Daily reported that the suicides of four students in 2013 were related to their low exam scores. The paper placed the blame on inadequate mental health services, overwhelming parental expectations and teachers' insufficient emphasis on being “strong in the face of failure.” It skirted perhaps the biggest underlying cause of mental strife among students: The social stigma of not passing.

“I know it’s not fair for most of the students. They only have one opportunity," Jin said. "If they fail, society will view them as a failure… But China’s population is huge. It may not be fair, but it’s the fairest option we have.” Students like Jin are concerned by the immense gap between the future prospects and social standing of those with and without a college degree. But general consensus holds that there is no realistic alternative—unless one's family has the money.

Sun said bribery, whether to education ministry or college officials, was another option for those that failed the test. From the primary through collegiate level it is common practice for parents to bribe school faculty in order to ensure their children a spot at a top school. Budgeting for gifts and favors is a more effective means of advancement than cram classes, putting the lie to the claim of effective, meritocratic education that many make for a gaokao-centric system.

Making the grade

Progress is at least being made on the need for supply to meet demand for those that pass the exam. Before 1981 a student’s chances of being accepted to a university was dismally low at only 10%, according research featured in the 2014 edition of the Oxford Companion to the Economics of China based on data from the National Education Examination Authority and mainland web portal Education Online. By 1998 that figure had risen to 40% and, as of 2011, 72.3% of gaokao grads had been placed into the university system.

But that doesn't mean everyone is satisfied. In a 2014 survey by the Legatum Institute measuring global education quality, China was found to have low tertiary enrollment rates and mediocre satisfaction of educational quality. That was down from 50th world-wide in 2012 to 54th in 2013 and on down to 61st in 2014. As economic inequality rises, families at the top retain resources and connections which dramatically improve the likelihood of college acceptance and can perpetuate low mobility for the rest of society. This immense influx of post-secondary students has also oversaturated the professional labor market, resulting in college grads 25 years or younger actually having a higher rate of unemployment compared to less-educated workers.

When asked what they would do if they hadn't passed the gaokao, all three ECNU students sat in silence. After a few awkward seconds, they half-heartedly suggested that they would attend a vocational school.

“It’s the environment you would face, it would be very different,” said Yin, originally from Tawian but who had taken a version of the mainland exam to attend ECNU. Yin said someone who failed would be stigmatized by those around her, as if a barrier had been raised between her and those who would go on to lead successful lives. It's a fear that haunts current college students as welleven those who want a different life for their own children, like Jin.

“I think my generation is more open-minded,” Jin said. “When I have children I would want them to have more choices. If he doesn’t want to go to college he shouldn’t have to. He should have space and time to figure out what he wants to do and what he’s good at... But on the other hand, I think it’s quite important that he gets a degree because not everyone thinks like me. I don’t want him to lose an opportunity because of my thinking.” 

Next time in part 3: How geography continues to determine opportunity for China's rural students.

Author: Andrew Ross

Editor: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)