The gaokao is not the SAT… well, maybe

Earlier this summer, 9.4 million high school seniors in China took the all-important college entrance exam. The top 75% will be eligible to enter Chinese universities. But only the top 10% will be able to enter the top universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University or Nankai University.

Others will attend second- or third-tier universities. The bottom 25% will not. Soon every student will know where he or she has scored. There is no Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act because the system must be transparent and fair.

This test is a content test in Chinese, English, mathematics and a subset of sciences and social sciences. The questions on the gaokao also drive the content in next year’s courses. When the questions are released, many are published in teaching journals across the country. And teachers snatch them up.

Every year, teachers in China take their curriculum and compare it with the released test questions. “Yes, I covered that so I leave it in.” “Uh oh, that is new so I will have to add that.” “Hmmm, I covered another topic in class, but it is no longer on the test – so out it goes.”

The Chinese teacher does not control what they teach. The test does. Teacher training universities therefore find it strange when I describe American teachers who construct their own curriculum.

Well, that was before the No Child Left Behind or NCLB Act. Despite being renamed ESSA – Every Student Succeeds Act – the NCLB testing remains embedded in nearly all state education regulations and teachers are losing that professional right.


The mode of learning in most Chinese schools is memorisation for the gaokao. Public high schools are ranked according to their percentage of students that pass the gaokao.

A new teacher whose students’ scores drop will not be rehired. The ‘best’ high schools turn out the ‘best’ because they only take the best. There is a zhong kao test that is given between middle and high school that begins sorting students.

In high school, the headmaster may instruct the teachers of high school seniors that two months before the June gaokao test, the teachers are to stop teaching new material. Students are to spend the whole day committing their notes to memory.

Some students tell me that their whole senior year was committed to copying down classic answers over and over again until they are known by heart, whether or not the student actually understands their full meaning.

That is why I was irate when the China Central TV news described the gaokao as "just like the SAT test given in America for college entrance". No! The SAT has been an aptitude test that has measured students’ general ability and American teachers do not teach-to-the-SAT. Well, not yet.

Gaokao coming to the US?

Unfortunately, I have to stop myself because that is changing. This year in the United States, a new SAT has emerged to high praise and fanfare in both Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One clever piece described how students would no longer have to decide whether esoteric-was-to-foundational as frivolous-was-to-whatever. The SAT would now be aligned to what was taught in school. And no one had a bad word to say about it!

The ACT test has also been creeping towards measuring specific class content, with a series of sub-measurements throughout K-12. And it is all supposedly good.

Despite all of the verbiage against teaching-to-the-test, this is exactly what the new SAT and ACT are accomplishing. The pressure to raise students’ scores continues. This is how the Chinese gaokao is coming to America.

This is my 18th visa to China and for years, part of my work has been to help their teacher training programmes in biology move away from memorisation and copying and towards questioning and original problem solving.

The impetus for this comes heavily from Chinese educated in the West and who return to China with a great desire that their children learn to think creatively.

Meanwhile, the US continues to rapidly move towards taking away teachers’ professional curricular decision-making and building teach-to-the-test assembly lines.

Long ago, in the report A Nation At Risk, the Secretary of Education lamented that the state of US education was so bad that if it was due to another nation’s actions we would consider it an act of war. That would make today’s US Enemy Number One the national standardised test companies and the educationists and educational governing boards who support them.

John ‘Richard’ Schrock is the director of biology education at Emporia State University, USA, where he trains future biology teachers.