CHINA: Stress of the entrance examination

Silence. That was the first sign of something unusual at the prestigious Shanghai No 54 Middle School last Monday morning. No assembly in the sports field, no Chinese national anthem over the loudspeakers, no usual morning exercises to limber up young bodies and minds.

Instead, at this school and at thousands of schools across China, nearly 10 million youngsters, most of them high school graduates, began the gruelling three-day college entrance examination.

The annual ritual, formally known in English as the National College Entrance Examination, is popularly known in Chinese as the gaokao or 'high test'.

In Shanghai, as elsewhere, the gaokao is a city-wide effort. Parents put aside other matters to feed, meet and drop off their offspring. Taxi drivers declare exam-takers will have priority for their services. Even the municipal government pitches in, providing special arrangements for the students.

On the stretch of Kangping Road where students enter the No 54 Middle School examination venue, traffic police installed roadblocks to prevent speeding traffic. A board informed commuters they were in an exam zone and to please help out by keeping silent.

An 'exam economy' has quietly emerged in recent years: students are offered psychological tutoring, special meals and hourly-rate rooms by some opportunity-seizing businessmen.

By 5pm on Tuesday, a 100-strong posse of silent, anxiously waiting parents had taken over the stretch of Kangping Road and, in some cases, mothers and fathers came along.

A bright red banner across the gates announced the examination was in progress. As students finished, they trickled out looking dazed, drained and a little self-conscious. Parents craned their necks to find their young. Somebody took a picture.

One young woman, Meng Ke, e-mailed on Tuesday: "I'm in the middle of the big test as I'm writing and I still have one history test tomorrow. Tiresome but you get a strange ceremonial feeling, like, maybe I'm never going to have the chance to do another ugly maths paper in my whole life.

"This feeling might also be generated from the society's tremendous attention to gaokao. It makes the headlines for three whole days on newspapers and TV. The city government sends extra police forces, and God, look at the faces of the never-been-so-nervous parents!"

Meng said: "gaokao is our life. A typical Chinese senior student virtually doesn't have a life apart from this, we almost don't learn anything new and don't take any other 'irrelevant' classes, interests or social events apart from the four subjects - Chinese, English, maths and a choice of our own.

"Senior year means tons of mock tests and practices and one, two, three rounds of reviewing. Our original class [groupings] are divided and new ones are formed based on the subject choices we made. As for the younger students who just entered high school, they're freer but they all know somewhere the gaokao is waiting."

Those who have done the gaokao look back on it with horror. An office worker, who asked not to be named, said: "Thank God I don't have to go through that again."

She said it was the most stressful thing she had done in her entire school career. In fact, in the 10 years that had passed, she had not gone through anything as stressful.

"In preparation, for three years I woke up at 6am and went to bed at 9pm. I took only two days off a month. The pressure from parents and teachers was enormous."

One recent college graduate, who now works as a news reporter, said that for the 10 years she was in school, the gaokao was the solitary goal of everything people did.

"We used to say that in Chinese schools, you work your ass off until high school and then play in colleges. And in the US it's the opposite.

"For my own high school, the No 1 High School, attached to the East China Normal University, a pretty good city key school, we had a building called the senior building. You moved into that building once you entered the 12th grade. And we called that building a prison."

For people who want to enter a college, the gaokao affects everything in their life. But as China changes, loosens and opens up, the gaokao's impact is changing too.

Although 9.57 million students sat the examination this year, that is 650,000 fewer than last year and the second year the numbers have dropped, the China Daily reported, citing the Ministry of Education.

This is because of the falling birth rate from China's one-child policy, the paper said. There had also been a jump in the number of students who could afford to go overseas to study instead.

MyCos, a Beijing-based higher education consulting firm cited in the China Daily, said the number of students going abroad rose to around 220,000 in 2009, up 50,000 students compared with 2008.

"Every year the number of students taking the gaokao is dropping," Wang Huiyao, Vice-chairman of the China Western Returned Scholars Association, said from Beijing. "The Ministry of Education controls all universities, this stops innovation and creativity... school autonomy is the key."

Education reform is urgently needed and Wang suggested the gaokao be held as many as six times a year, so students could pick their best results.

Universities need more rights to pick the students they want, he said. The entrance requirements, too, should be based on other criteria such as a personal statement prepared by the student, reference letters from teachers and the student's extracurricular activities.

Local universities are already finding new ways to compete for the best brains in the pool.

Meng wrote: "I think a major change that I observed might be that the prestigious colleges in China have used different methods other than gaokao to select their students.

"This year as I know, Fudan University is admitting 500 students in Shanghai on its own with high school recommendations, an encyclopaedia-style test and interviews. Although these students still take gaokao, they just have to pass the 'college line'."

The latest draft of education reform, according to the Xinhua news agency, proposes to introduce diversified channels for colleges and universities to enrol students rather than using the gaokao results exclusively.

Xinhua said that enrolment through recommendations by high school principals and the institutions' own examinations would also be considered.