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Ministry bid to gain overseas recognition for gaokao

China’s education ministry is pushing for the country’s National College Entrance Exam, known as the gaokao, to be accepted for admission by more overseas universities.

The move comes as the weighting of the English language segment in the examination has been reduced, and amid fears that Chinese students may lose out on overseas university places because of a perceived ‘lowering of standards’ as the number of subjects examined expands.

Over nine million school leavers in China will sit the gaokao in early June. But preparing for additional examinations for overseas universities is stressful.

Yu Jihai, deputy-director of the Ministry of Education’s international department, speaking at a recent conference, said: “We are currently working on having foreign countries recognise the grades of China’s gaokao."

While lobbying of international universities is already underway, it could still take time before any results will be seen, Yu admitted in remarks cited by official media on 24 May.

Ministry officials claim some 60 Australian universities now accept applications from China on the basis of gaokao scores after the University of Sydney first did so in 2012.

“The fact that some Australian universities take into account gaokao scores means that Chinese applicants do not need to take a one-year preparatory programme if their gaokao scores exceed requirements set for first-tier universities in their provinces, which could save them about CNY250,000 (US$40,000) in tuition and living expenses,” the official Global Times quoted a student recruitment agent as saying.

The University of San Francisco in the US became the latest overseas university to announce, on 9 May, that it will admit students from China on the basis of a gaokao score and one-on-one interviews. The university said in a statement that students will not need to take the SAT or English-language tests such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System).

Some institutions in Italy France, Germany and Spain have accepted these scores on an individual basis. In France specific scores in gaokao mathematics and science exams are used to judge academic levels of students applying for degrees in those subjects.

But very few students are able to gain admission to institutions abroad solely on gaokao scores and require additional high marks in language-proficiency tests, which can be challenging for many students.

Gaokao vs SATs

The need to sit the US college entrance exam known as the SAT also means tens of thousands of Chinese students applying to US universities have to spend an extra year of preparation compared to those heading for Australia – one of the reasons some US institutions are considering basing admissions on the gaokao.

The results of four consecutive SAT exams were delayed for thousands of students in Asia late last year and early this year due to concerns about cheating in South Korea and centres attended by Chinese students. Some SAT scores were cancelled due to cheating allegations.

Due to the large number of Chinese students taking the SAT, the Chinese authorities are concerned that the cheating scandals reflect negatively on all Chinese students. In addition, many students retake SATs to improve their scores, while the gaokao is taken only once, and is therefore being promoted as a more reliable measure of abilities.

Chinese authorities prohibit SATs from being administered to its citizens within China, so students have to fly to Hong Kong or Singapore – the nearest test-taking centres – to take SATs, and there is a huge and lucrative market within China for SAT preparation, which poorer students and those in rural areas are excluded from.

China’s official media has also carried articles criticising changes in the SAT to be brought in by early 2016 to include key US historical documents in part of the test. Commentaries in Chinese official media note that a new focus on civil liberties in SAT tests could influence the views of Chinese students merely through the medium of examination prep.

China’s official media said such materials were worrying as they “may impose the America values system on students”, the official Xinhua news agency said last August.

“Although it is not the main reason behind the authorities wanting to increase the recognition overseas of the gaokao, it is sometimes spoken about by government hardliners and party officials,” said a professor at a university in Southern China, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Broader scope

In a bid to dispel the view that the gaokao tests are mainly rote-learning, Chinese officials are telling overseas universities during regular educational exchanges that the examination has been broadened to include a larger number of subjects – previously only performance in mathematics, Chinese and English were examined – as well as including ‘personal and social character’ in the assessment. These will include community engagement and volunteering as well as cultural and sporting activities.

The new version is currently being piloted in Shanghai and in Zhejiang province on China’s east coast.

At the same time China is reverting back to a system of ‘unified’ gaokao papers, where students in different provinces sit the same paper set by the Ministry of Education, reversing a system where different provinces set different papers – a system that had made it impossible for overseas universities to compare students from different parts of the country.

By 2016 some 25 provinces – with the continued exception of Beijing and Shanghai – will be using the same papers, Education Minister Yuan Guiren announced in March.

The government’s push for gaokao recognition abroad also comes as China is tightening up on independent university exams as an alternative route to admissions within a number of institutions in the country. Some 93 universities have sent their lists of candidates approved to take part in independent exams to the Ministry of Education for vetting.

Normally held in February, the independent exams have been postponed until after the gaokao is held in June. Under the new rules all students must sit the gaokao and take the independent exams additionally, two weeks later.

The change this year comes after reports of corruption and claims that offspring of top officials were using it as a way into prestigious universities without having to sit the gaokao.

Some 9.39 million students took the gaokao in 2014, according to ministry figures.

Related Links
A Frankenstein recruiting system feeding off students
The gaokao – The test where time stands still
Reforming the Gaokao
Gaokao reform and international higher education
University entrance reform could fuel corruption
Public supports reduction of English in entrance exam
Thousands to head to Hong Kong for US examinations
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