Foreign Policy: Silence For China's 'Big Test'

Originally published on June 13, 2011 8:56 am

Christina Larson is a China-based Foreign Policy contributing editor.

For three days each June, all of China quiets to a whisper. In Shanghai, the ever-present construction crews are furloughed, and thousands of uniformed signal guards are deployed to stop drivers from sounding their horns. Similar noise-reduction campaigns are put in place in other cities across the country. The aim is to provide the most peaceful atmosphere possible for China's roughly 9 million high school seniors, who, armed with yellow pencils, dutifully scribble answers on an exam they believe will shape their destiny: the gaokao, or "big test."

The gaokao is China's college-entrance exam, the world's largest high-stakes test. Everyone takes it at the same time — June 7 to 9 this year — and has only one shot. It lasts nine hours total and includes segments on math, Chinese, and English, plus two optional subjects, such as geography, chemistry, or physics. The results are the sole criteria determining college placement in mainland China. While a high score can win entry for a poor farmer's son in remote Gansu province to elite Peking University, a lackluster score can relegate him to an underfunded backwater school with peeling paint and unqualified professors, or shut fast the doors to college entirely.

The test is seen, rightly, as a bright dividing line in a young person's life. Do well, and you've earned a chance to join the elite; do poorly, and your prospects dim dramatically. That might sound harsh, but when the test was first launched, the vision behind it was utopian. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong shut universities and sent intellectuals to labor in fields, China's universities were reopened and the entrance exam was launched in 1977. Like the United States' SAT, which was designed by Princeton University psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham and first administered in 1926, the aim of the gaokao was to identify the country's best and brightest — to make high test scores, not political patronage or guanxi (relationships), the ticket to a university education. In short, the dream was to enshrine a meritocracy.

But pinning such grand hopes on a single yardstick invariably leads to discontent. In the 1980s, U.S. journalists such as Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, and the Atlantic's James Fallows began to question whether the SATs, as the latter put it, "really discover the best and the brightest?" Educators in the United States have also wondered whether a focus on testing distracts from other forms of learning. So too in China, it turns out. Although the SAT and gaokao are quite different in their actual content, Chinese educators, writers, parents, and students now assail the gaokao along similar lines: Is the test fair? Is the information useful? Do the wealthy have a head start? Does an emphasis on test preparation crowd out other learning? Yet absent clear alternatives, no large-scale reform seems imminent.

Charisette Li is now a senior at prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou. The daughter of a middle-school teacher, she grew up in the blackened industrial city of Dongguan. Gregarious and cheerful, with hip chunky glasses, a quick smile, and a penchant for American pop music, she achieved a high score that earned her admission to a top university. When she graduates in a month, she will begin an internship at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, an enviable perch. She is, in other words, someone who emerged a winner from China's high-stakes testing system. But looking back to her time boarding at Dongguan Experimental High School, she now questions the all-consuming imperative of studying for gaokao:

In high school, everything I did was about the gaokao. I can't even imagine what I was going to do or be after school. The only thing I have to care about was to get into a top university.... My classmates and I spent almost all our time on campus. We were not allowed to go out on weekdays, only maybe Sunday afternoon to buy some things, with permission. Or on Saturday night, our parents could visit. Mostly, to go out you needed a ticket from the teacher that you had an important reason. Otherwise we were mostly locked in. They thought we had to be locked in, in order to guarantee that we would all be on track. They thought: The stricter the rules, the better our grades will be. Usually our parents don't ask questions; they just accept the system.

The oddest thing, as Li sees it now, is that what she learned for the test wasn't terribly useful afterward. Once she started at university, she quickly forgot the battery of facts she had devoted the previous four years to memorizing. It wasn't "important to real life," she says, concluding, "All the students were working so hard toward one goal; I just did it without thinking, 'What for?' But now, I'm different — now I want to know the reason for what I do."

Li's concerns about the test — that the pressure is overwhelming, but its assessment of intelligence or future potential is imprecise — are hardly unique. Among Chinese researchers and educators, criticism has been bubbling for years. Last year, even the state-run China Daily newspaper wrote about the results of a study tracking 1,000 top gaokao scorers over 30 years. Not one, the paper reported, had an outstanding career afterward.

Others worry about whether the test is truly fair: Do students who attend the best secondary schools and whose parents fork out for expensive test-prep tutors inevitably earn the highest scores? The gaokao is "expected to be the great equalizer, to ensure that a peasant's son from Gansu has the same doors open as a Shanghai official. But it is a noble lie," one disillusioned university official told me. "The test is not a useful measure, and the notion that society is built on equal access to opportunity is false."

A few students are now seeking to get around the test entirely. As Shanghai-based education consultant Lucia Pierce told me, an increasing number of wealthy Chinese students seek to be admitted to colleges in the United States and elsewhere (and thus study for the SATs instead). A handful of elite colleges in China now offer limited early-admissions slots that don't require the gaokao, typically for students who've won national awards in high school or taken additional tests offered by the schools. Yet both options are practical only for a sliver of graduates.

As for reforming the gaokao, the prospects seem dim. Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Peking University High School, recently penned a lengthy essay in the Diplomat exploring possible alternatives, but in the end admitted a failure of imagination:

So, if we were to start from scratch and try to build an alternative to the gaokao, we would end up with as the only viable alternative...the gaokao. That's what a lot of people tend to forget: that given the complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions, given the stifling poverty that most Chinese find themselves in, and given China's endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China's [scarce] education resources.

That sentiment is fairly widespread. In a country where corruption and suspicion are endemic, many believe that everything has a price, even favorable teacher recommendations and grade-point averages. The test, for all its brutality, does produce a clean numerical score — and those scores can be ranked. As a recent graduate of Beijing Language and Culture University, a midtier school, told me: "If there was no gaokao, there would only be guanxi."

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