Chinese Exam Continues to Shape Students’ Futures

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In high school, while most American students are gaining more responsibility with each year, halfway around the world, Chinese teenagers become slaves to their schoolwork. In college, while most Americans are exploring the possibilities of their futures by dabbling in a variety of classes, many of their Chinese counterparts are studying for a degree they didn’t choose. Upon graduation, while most Americans are interviewing for positions they may or may not be qualified for despite their alma mater, Chinese graduates from less-than-prestigious universities are still haunted by their scores on the country’s omnipotent entrance exam: the gaokao.


In a country with one-fifth of the world’s population, it’s necessary to have a system based on fairness, but it’s unfair that a single nationwide assessment has the power to dictate the country’s entire education system. China’s system, not unlike the U.S., is largely based on teaching toward an examination; test scores can help gauge how much the students have learned and measure how well the teachers have taught. Among the many differences in the two arguably flawed structures, however, is that once an American is accepted to college, the SAT becomes a thing of the past, but the Chinese university entrance exam has the potential to linger long after graduation.


The gaokao is comprised of three core subjects (Chinese language and literature, English, and Math), plus other topics determined by the provinces – and the total score is the only thing that matters on a university application. Unlike U.S. colleges, Chinese institutions don’t supplement the exam with things such as high school transcripts or involvement in clubs, sports and other extra curricular activities that allow an admissions board to accept well-rounded individuals who simply don’t test well.


As a result, public schools fail to emphasize subjects that won’t be included on the exam, such as physical education, drama and music, and parents often continue this narrow education pattern by forbidding students to date or participate in sports, arts, or social activities that aren’t guaranteed to have a positive impact on their college applications, according to Yong Zhao in his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way. These things are seen as unnecessary distractions from schoolwork, which is to say distractions from preparing for an exam with so much weight that it’s nearly impossible to think about anything else.


In China, parents “are more concerned about whether their children can get into a good college than whether they receive a good education,” wrote Yong. And though Chinese students spend more than twice as many hours on schoolwork as their American peers, “effort, not ability, is presumed to determine success in school,” according to The Asia Society (Education in China). Unfortunately that effort is largely spent on rote memorization, a learning technique taught in primary school and cultivated throughout the education chain.

“Our children are taught to memorize everything when they are young, and it’s difficult to change that way of thinking when they get to university,” said Cao Fengting, deputy dean and associate professor of English at Guangdong Peizheng College in southeastern China. Cao has teaching experience at George Fox University in Oregon, U.S., as well as the University of Bristol, U.K., and acknowledges that Chinese classrooms are teacher dominated with a focus on note taking and reciprocation, not discussion and creative thought. “I like the more active way of the West,” she said, “but it won’t work like this in China. Our students need something concrete.”


On a stroll through GPC’s campus, you’re likely to witness this study habit for yourself. Students find peaceful park benches at the river’s edge to sit and read aloud, over and over, until they can recite the passage without looking. For exams, it’s expected that students take ample notes in class and spend hours cramming their brains full. Though they have many more exams in their futures, most will tell you they’re nothing compared to the stress of the gaokao. Despite the overwhelming relief that the gaokao is finished, these students still cringe at the mention of that almighty exam, for everybody knows they are here, at GPC, only because their test scores were too low to qualify anywhere better.


University in China


In China, a top score on the entrance exam can open doors to one of the country’s prestigious government-owned universities for a yearly tuition of about RMB 6,000 (USD $963), according to Cao. A passing, but not competitive, score means students are forced into second-rate, private institutions such as GPC, where tuition rates average RMB 18,000 (USD $2,890), a fee only the nation’s upper and rising middle classes can afford. 


The education a student will receive at such a school is less reputable than the government schools, where professors are required to obtain a PhD. According to Cao – who is a retired English professor from Wuhan University of Technology, a national key university in China (55 is the mandatory retirement age), and has recently finished her fourth year at GPC for “a lifestyle change” – schools like GPC require only a master’s degree and therefore attract a lower caliber faculty.


Even after acceptance to a lower level university, the gaokao score can have a lasting effect on a student. At GPC, at least 50% of the 100 freshmen I spoke with didn’t choose the major they’re currently committed to for the next four years. Sometimes their parents demand them to study a program they believe is most beneficial. Other times, the school chooses for them. If there aren’t enough teachers to satisfy the demand for a particular department, GPC will give priority to those with higher gaokao scores. The others must study another program with space, which means there are marketing majors who want to be lawyers and psychology majors who want to be businessmen.


“Government university students can change majors if they want,” said Cao, after acknowledging that it almost never happens at GPC. “But it’s not easy to do and the students need to take another exam to be accepted into the new major, so it’s not very common.” For many whose parents chose for them, a change would be rebellious and unheard of.


Like the university acceptance procedure, employers don’t care about things like previous transcripts, extra-curricular activities, and participation in clubs or organizations. In America, an unpopular school but a good resume could still earn an interview with potential employers. Many times, just as much as skill and experience, personality is important. But in China, where more than twenty million graduates are applying for jobs, the competition is such that names like GPC on the top of a resume can ensure a direct drop in the wastebasket after only a glance. In a pile of 14,000 applicants (the actual case for a senior student at GPC who applied for a secretary position with a large company in nearby Guangzhou), resumes from graduates of disreputable institutions are immediately disregarded.


The country is aware of the faults caused by the gaokao-run system and has tried numerous times to restructure, though education reform in any country is a difficult task. Over the past 30 years, China has tried to improve the system by way of textbook reforms, assessment reforms, teacher practices and preparation reforms, and by reallocating control and funding, but their efforts have failed to make a significant impact (Yong).


The problem is they attempted to make adjustments to everything except the very thing that makes the system’s beating heart tick – the gaokao. In 2008, the government did allow select universities (68 of the more than 2,000) to consider acceptance criteria other than the gaokao for 5% of the incoming freshmen on a trial-only basis, which may have aided the most recent overhaul plan for 2010 to 2020 (Education in China). This latest reform, known as the Development Plan, was influenced by the U.S. university structure and makes a bold point to change China’s gaokao-dominated system to a more “thorough evaluation of a student as a whole person using multiple tests and factors,” according to Guo-Hua Wang in her article for the China Research Center (Wang). However, at the start of 2013, students in middle school are still memorizing, students in high school are still cramming, and universities around the country are still deciding acceptance based on that one important score.


Despite the clear need for reform, many critics argue against it. In a country known for it’s corruption, opening up the university admission process to allow for consideration of individuality also opens up the system to bribery and exploitation (Wang). Critics fear the changes will require new laws, and it’s no secret to the people, the officials or the media that the Chinese government has a hard enough time enforcing the ones they already have.


“The gaokao is very necessary because it’s the only way to make it fair for the students who are competent enough,” said Cao. And she’s right. The test, despite all of its faults, is currently the only answer to ensuring fairness based on ability, not connections or financial status, in an overly competitive market. Unfortunately, the gaokao holds so much weight that it’s difficult to lift even after the hard work is over, and until the country can figure out how to advance the system without corrupting it, this popular Chinese saying will remain true: One exam can determine your whole life.





Jessica J. Hill, the Teach Abroad Editor for Wandering Educators, is an Oregon native currently working in China. She writes about traveling, teaching abroad, and coming home. Find more of her stories here:




Education in China: Lessons for U.S. Educators. Rep. Asia Society, Nov. 2005. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

Wang, Guo-hua. "China's Higher Education Reform." China Research Center. China Research Center, 20 Apr. 2010. Web. 01 Dec. 2012.

Yong Zhao "Chapter 4. Why China Isn't a Threat Yet: The Costs of High Scores." Catching Up or Leading the Way. N.p.: n.p., 2009. N. pag. ASCD. Web.

Feature photo of The University of Xiamen campus courtesy of flickr creative commons:

Article photo courtesy and copyright Jessica J. Hill