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Uphill battle to reform high-stakes university entrance exams
For millions of young people in China it has been a make-or-break month. Results of the national college entrance exam, the gaokao, are now being released and the scramble for the best university places has begun – and in many cases, for any place at all.

But while the annual hysteria over the gaokao, which took place over three days in early June, is beginning to wind down, the debate over reforms of the high-stakes exam continues.

Several countries in Asia have a similar admissions system that depends on a national selection exam.

University entrance examinations in Japan and Taiwan take place over two days, while South Korea allows only one day for six subjects, a system thought to increase the pressure on students. Vietnam’s university entrance exam takes place countrywide on 7 July.

Countries like South Korea have in recent years introduced reforms to the highly stressful college entrance system.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training said earlier this year it plans to change the one-size-fits-all exams from 2020, hoping to align them more closely to intended subject majors. With university entrance based on total marks, Vietnam has seen a severe mismatch between students and potential careers.

Some changes have already been introduced in Vietnam in time for this year’s exam. For example, students who have obtained first, second and third prizes in national exams can be recruited directly by universities without sitting the entrance exams.

And medical and pharmacology universities are now allowed to admit ethnic minority students and those with official residency permits for 62 disadvantaged districts without the entrance exam, which the health ministry’s science and training department described as an “important development” in this year’s admissions process.

Reforms to the gaokao

But the 600,000 students taking the Vietnamese exam pale beside China’s 9.15 million school students who sat the gaokao last month. Around three-quarters will qualify for a university place.

There has been criticism that those who score well and go to top universities are doing so partly because they are the best rote learners rather than the innovative thinkers the country needs.

From 2000 onwards, China’s authorities tried to counter some of the criticisms, introducing an essay to gauge creativity and imagination, and more problem-solving and logical thinking.

But centralised university entrance examinations in Asia have also been criticised for determining young people’s future through one test.

The Chinese government has said it will make further changes to the system.

In a recent 10-year education reform and development plan, education ministry officials acknowledged the unfairness of “a single examination that defines a student's destiny”. And in November the ministry promised “multiple measures” to spot talented young people.

The ministry wants to encourage top universities to use an independent exam to test students hoping to enter universities in 2012. “Encouraging universities to select students based on independent criteria is an important supplement to the country's system of college entrance exams,” said a ministry notice in November.

“It's unhelpful to talk of the complete abolition of the gaokao system, but there needs to be a re-evaluation of its importance,” said Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Centre in Beijing.

Xiong suggested: “The responsibility for admissions [should be] shifted to universities themselves and [there should be a] focus on building up their independent recruitment abilities. The idea that students can only choose one university instead of receiving offers from different universities is not right.”

Korea’s reforms

China is not alone in questioning the value of its higher education entrance tests.

In 2008 South Korea bit the bullet and revamped its entrance system, based at that time entirely on the College Scholastic Ability Test or Su Neung.

Under the reform, universities got admissions officers to evaluate applications based on potential. Criteria include recommendations from schools and consideration of extra-curricular activities in addition to test scores.

The South Korean government was particularly concerned about the hours of after-school cramming over many years and the quality of private cram schools that prepared students for the eight-hour test marathon, normally held in November.

The new admissions system was adopted by just 10 Korean universities in 2008. Now 120 universities use it, with the help of increased government subsidies for introducing the system. The latest government statistics show that just over one in 10 students are now selected outside the national test system.

According to universities, selecting students who are more interested in, and display more specific aptitude for, the field they are applying in, rather than relying on the highest overall test scores, has meant students perform better during subsequent years at university compared to those with high scores. There have also been reduced drop-out rates in particular subjects.

But the university-administered admissions system comes with a price tag. The government subsidy for university-led admissions was 15.7 billion won (US$13.6 million) in 2008, and more than double that last year. It is expected to reach almost 40 billion won this year.

A challenge for China

The cost for China, with a much larger university system, would be huge, although no official estimates have been released publicly.

“These kind of services in China will require tremendous amounts of funding,” said Heidi Ross, professor of education policy studies and director of the East Asian Study Centre at Indiana University in the United States.

“It will require development and resources at all the institutions in China. Institutions will have to have admissions officers, data and research. Admissions officers are expensive and it carries financial risks when admissions officers don’t get the classifications right.”

And, says Yimin Wang, a doctoral student at Indiana University who has studied reform of the gaokao, there are huge differences between mostly urban South Korea and China, which would need to ensure fair admissions from rural areas.

Former high-school teacher Li Guangxue, writing in Shanghai Education News, argued that given China's large population, the gaokao is the most just and efficient way of assessing students in the country.

It would be almost impossible for Chinese admission officers to read the personal statements, recommendation letters and additional information of 10 million applicants within a limited amount of time, Li said.

And the government’s idea of special admissions offers for students with exceptional talents in certain fields that permit lower gaokao scores would pose a problem, Li argued. “Most of these opportunities are given to well-known high schools in the city. The poor rural population, which is the most desperate, does not receive such benefits.”

Corruption might be another problem if universities were to be given more autonomy to select students. “Since no standard test or requirement is in place for testing a student, there might be more room for students to bribe admissions officers,” Li added.

Many critics say the time and money required to travel to university interviews would also discriminate against poorer students.

The ministry has begun to allow some universities the right of ‘autonomous recruitment’ using exams designed by the university itself, sometimes supplemented by an academic interview with an admissions committee. But with so few universities granted this autonomy, it hardly amounts to a change in the system.

The few exceptions are touted in official media – Peking university used the system introduced in 2009 of using a high-school head’s recommendation as a basis for an onsite interview, while accepting a lower gaokao score. But it used this system to admit just 3% of its students.

“Shanghai has held spring university entrance exams in addition to the gaokao for years, but few students opt for this method,” Li pointed out.

Group admissions

The South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, in the news for having more autonomy than other public universities, has selected students using its own tests – but these are in addition to the gaokao, which will still account for 60% of overall marks, while the university’s test and school performance will account for 40%.

“It is not a huge reform in the way the students are evaluated,” noted Heidi Ross. “Allocating 40% [outside the gaokao] is a long way off from 100%.”

An additional concern is that students will have to take more than one highly stressful exam, or even that learning for university tests interferes with gaokao preparation.

Top universities have formed admissions alliances, where one exam can be taken to try for admission to any one of a group of universities.

Tsinghua University, University of Science and Technology of China, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Xi'an Jiaotong University and Nanjing University formed China's first alliance, named the Hua League, in 2010.

A similar alliance was formed later the same year and includes the universities of Peking, Beijing Beihang, Beijing Normal, Nankai, Fudan, Xiamen and Hong Kong.

Reforms in future

“China needs to manage to have an equitable system and a quality system. There won’t be one without the other,” said Ross. “It is usually elite institutions that set the stage for reform, but the vast majority of students are not going to those institutions."

She believes that with demographic decline in China “the tier three and four universities are the ones that need to find their niche and seek out students. That’s where the impetus for reform will come from.”

But real root-and-branch reform of the system is still a long way off.

“No one knows how to get rid the exam because it is a last bastion of meritocracy,” she told University World News. “The gaokao has tremendous staying power.”

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