The gaokao – The test where time stands still

Police cars blocked the street, parked front bumper to back bumper, forming a barricade to traffic. Five blocks ahead, a similar barricade prevented any oncoming traffic. I had told my taxi driver "Yangling High School" and we had arrived.

I faced the quietest scene in China since I landed in Beijing one week after the Wenchuan earthquake and the whole country came to a halt in a moment of silence. But this was an annual event and is the most critical time in the life of Chinese youth.

It was the second day of the two-day national high school leaving examination or college entrance exam, the gaokao. About 9.4 million graduating seniors across China were taking this test today. A little over seven million will have scores high enough to enter college. And the higher the score, the higher rank the college.

Those that fail? Their life will be harder; their pay far, far lower. And it is not just the student that fails, but parents and grandparents too. China has not yet achieved a social security system and, for many, the child remains the ‘social security’ for two parents and four grandparents.

That is why parents and grandparents crowded this street outside the school fence. As I walked among them, the quietness was eerie. China is a country of constant chatter. But the little being said was in low and sombre voices. You did not have to speak Chinese to detect the fretting and the anxiety.

A serious matter

Yangling is not a tourist town. You can count the number of Westerners here on one hand. So I am accustomed to heads turning as I pass through. But today, no one looked up or noticed me. I was like a ghost drifting invisible through this crowd. Their minds were on the students who had come to this decisive moment in their lives. If he or she failed, they all failed.

My host here has oversight of this high school. He explained how his team had tested out the cameras the week before.

In every one of the test classrooms, cameras were mounted that could scan every corner of the room. And they were all linked to Beijing. In some cities, parents can even watch their child on camera during these two days of testing, but not here.

Tests were delivered in armoured cars by armed police – normal police in China are not armed. Students filed in for the test through security scanners, similar to our airport security, and were patted down and wanded.

During these two days, police also man full-frequency scanners to detect any transmissions from inside classrooms. Last year, more than 60 such cases were detected nationwide. Not only the students but also the parents, the equipment salesmen and anyone remotely involved received the harshest of sentences. This is one issue for which China has ‘zero tolerance’.

The gaokao and HE structure

The gaokao has three major sections: mathematics, Chinese and English. There are additional minor subsections but you have to score high on these big three topics or your total score will fall too low to get into the first or second rank of universities – and two million will fail to get into any university.

The subsections divide into the options of science or humanities. Biology, chemistry and physics are 90 points each and entry into science-oriented universities requires high scores in these areas.

In China, whole universities are focused just on electrical engineering or computer studies. Tsinghua University is ‘China’s MIT’. In the other direction are literature, history, geography and political science. Some Chinese universities focus on just foreign studies and so on, which means subsection scores are important.

Chinese university curricula are heavily focused on vocations and have minimal ‘general education’ coursework because graduates will generally stay in one job position for the rest of their lives.

General education that allows for switching majors or having flexibility in adapting to different or changing jobs is not yet valuable. China trains for making a living, not for having a life. The gaokao sets the stage for that specialisation.

The dilemma many school teachers face is that they have students who are brilliant during elementary and high school in one specific subject such as physics. But they are not similarly high achievers in English or even Chinese. Just physics.

China – yet to get a Nobel Prize in the sciences – knows it is losing some brilliant talent because these little Einsteins are not broad-based scholars. And this situation also occurs with other narrowly brilliant kids in art, music, literature and other fields.

The Ministry of Education proposed to let school principals write letters of exemption for brilliant students to bypass the gaokao. The public protested – too great a likelihood that some affluent parents would buy their academically challenged offspring these end runs.

Guanxi, which can be translated as relationships – knowing the right people, or you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours – is big in China. The people were right. The ministry backed off.

High school graduates sitting for the gaokao test in future years will face a difference in the test with the weighting on English cut dramatically, from 150 to 100 points. Many Chinese college graduates complain that they don’t use English much at all when they graduate and take jobs in China; so this action addresses that grumbling.

But the real purpose is to save the young Einsteins, Hemingways and Gershwins – the unique but narrowly talented geniuses who were excluded by a test that required mastery of a fuller range of academics.

Total transparency is necessary

Meantime, the students and parents in Yangling and elsewhere across China will not learn their scores today. It will take weeks to grade the Chinese, mathematics and English papers, plus the sub-tests. That process is also under high security.

A professor colleague in Nanjing regularly graded exams, and he was incommunicado for a solid week, locked on a floor of a hotel. I could never visit him in the second week of June.

Scores will be posted when finished. The names will be there for all to see, from top score to bottom, with the cut-off clearly marked. Americans fret about privacy and have laws to hide our students’ failures. But in China, this total transparency is absolutely essential so that all can see that in admission to college no preference was given to the wealthy and powerful.

This test has always been a one-time event, with students all across China beginning and ending at the same time. But today, television is making a big deal over two students who cannot take the test. They were victims of a knife attack on a bus two days before the test and are in the hospital.

The news media has focused heavily on their plight and security camera footage of the stabbing is on all the channels. The Ministry of Education will administer a special test to them when they recover.

But how about those who had less dramatic medical events or became sick with normal but debilitating illnesses on these days? With more than nine million students, those cases would run into the thousands, and the opportunity for cheating would rapidly get out of control. They get no dispensation. It has to be that way – for the good of all.

The gaokao is a big deal, the critical fork in the road for every Chinese student. It determines whether they will go on to a high-ranking university and earn paper currency, or have come to the end of their formal education and will make ‘coins’ and live an austere life.

* Dr John Richard Schrock teaches at Emporia State University in Kansas, USA. He visits China each year to assist universities with assessments, research papers and publications.