Educational assessments may take many forms, from the practical application of knowledge to presentations or exams. As discussed in a previous article, Chinese education is heavily exam-oriented. While students in Western countries spend several months crafting personal statements and submitting transcripts to universities, many Chinese students spend years preparing for the university entrance exam.

Preparation for higher education doesn’t start in 11th grade or even 9th grade. For some Chinese students, it begins in middle school. Chinese education is mandatory through middle school. Students who want to continue their studies to senior high school must first pass an entrance exam, called the Zhongkao. Doing well on this exam is the first step toward a successful academic career.

“Chinese students spend years preparing for the university entrance exam.”

The Zhongkao is a summative test to gauge students’ knowledge of math, Chinese, physics, chemistry, political science and foreign language (usually English). Students must also pass a fitness test. Students take the Zhongkao in June, at the end of their final year of junior secondary school. Doing well on this exam means students can be accepted into prestigious high schools, improving their chances of attending an elite university in the future. Judy, one of Alo7’s partner-school managers, explains that if you get into one of the top four high schools in Shanghai, “you’re guaranteed to go to a top-tier university” in China. Not only is the teaching quality in these high schools better, but students may even have the opportunity to study abroad.

Students aren’t the only ones who face pressure. Parents stress the importance of education, and some go to extremes to help their children do well on the exam. In 2014, there were reports of parents in Zhejiang province (located south of Shanghai) who donated blood to gain extra points for their children. This practice began when the provincial government started offering Zhongkao points and other incentives to increase blood donations. As recently as last year, Chinese media reported on some parents giving their children ephedrine, a medication usually prescribed for asthma, to improve performance on the physical education test. Of course, these parents are in the minority, but their stories show the overwhelming drive for students to score high marks on the Zhongkao.

Once students reach high school, studying hits the roof as they prepare for the Gaokao, the “high test.” Their score is the sole determining factor in university admissions and the final year of high school is dedicated to taking practice tests to prepare for this exam. It’s only offered once a year, but recently a few provinces have begun to provide make-up exams for students who fail it the first time. To get an idea of how vital the Gaokao is, consider the fact that major cities shut down during testing days. Police barricade roads and divert traffic so students can quickly reach testing sites. Nearby construction may be halted to avoid distracting noises.

“The final year of high school is dedicated to taking practice tests.”

The importance of education, as well as stamina, all come together on the official test day. The Gaokao takes place in June over the course of two days. There are three core sections, Chinese, foreign language (usually English) and math. There is also a subject exam which is broken into two streams, either sciences or liberal arts. Students can choose which concentration they want to take based on what major they want to pursue in university. Each section takes three hours, with essay writing in the Chinese section often cited as the most obscure and difficult part of the exam.

When registering for the Gaokao, students must indicate which university they would like to attend. However, they must be careful when filling out the application and know their capabilities because they cannot change their school choices once they receive their scores. A student who chooses a second-tier university is limited to those choices even if he or she scores high enough to be accepted into a top-tier school.

Competition is fierce; the most elite universities have quotas which only admit the highest scorers. Attending top-tier institutions such as Tsinghua University or Peking University can lead to lifelong success both economically and socially. Meanwhile, low-tier universities offer a lower quality of education that may not adequately prepare graduates for the job market. There are also issues of regional bias; students from provinces with small populations do not have to perform as well as a student from a high population location to get into a prestigious university. The idea behind this is to make the Gaokao fair, with the assumption that a student from an urban area has better access to education compared with a student from a rural area. The test, in this way, has been praised by low-income families and rural communities. A high-scoring student from a low-income family is almost certain to see their situation change.

“The most elite universities have quotas which only admit the highest scorers.”

Student attitudes towards this educational assessment aren’t all negative and filled with stress. Many students feel the Gaokao is a rite of passage; they are confident they have the tools and discipline to tackle future challenges. With over 300,000 Chinese students studying abroad in the USA alone, many choose to forgo the Gaokao altogether to focus on the SAT instead. The Gaokao might be taken into account when applying to universities overseas, but it isn’t required. Most students spend their time studying the test associated with their target country and researching their ideal school.

Zing, Alo7’s academic coordinator, remembers that she and her classmates studied constantly for the Gaokao, even on weekends and during holidays. Like many students who face this exam, she didn’t love the pressure that she faced to do well. Now that the Gaokao is behind her, Zing says she’s “more grateful for the Gaokao as it taught [her] how to learn and how to face pressure.” Not only her but her classmates too, reminisce about high school and feel it was some of the happiest years in their lives.

China’s approach to standardized testing has many critics who believe that the exam puts unnecessary stress on students and families. However, the exam serves to manage an enormous student population. In 2015, there were nearly 9.5 million high school seniors in China. Without the simplicity of test scores, it would likely be challenging to gauge students’ knowledge and capabilities because of the sheer volume of applications.

In recent years, the Chinese government has looked into restructuring the Gaokao due to increased criticism and decline of students taking the exam. One reason for the decrease is that middle class and upper-class families can now afford to send their children abroad. These students do not need to take the test. The second and more significant reason is due to the rise of vocational school attendance. China has recently put a focused effort into revitalizing the programs for vocational schools and President Xi Jinping has personally spoken about the importance of technical education, stating: “We will build an educated, skilled and innovative workforce, foster respect for model workers, promote quality workmanship and ensure that taking pride in labor becomes the norm, and the pursuit of excellence is valued as a good work ethic.”

Reforms started in 2014 are expected to be completed and in place by 2020. For the 2017 Gaokao, Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces were the first to experience some of the changes. Students were allowed to take the English portion twice and submit the better of the two scores. There was also more flexibility for students in choosing their preferred educational stream. Rather than making a strict division between the sciences and liberal arts, students had more freedom in high school to choose which classes they wanted and could take subject exams in both concentrations.

Now that you know about the test that plays such a significant role in Chinese students’ lives, why not try a few problems yourself? The following questions are lifted directly from previous versions of the official Gaokao.

Math:

Given f (x) = sinx – (2sqrt(3))(sin^2(pi/2)):

  1. A) Find f(x)’s smallest positive revolution
  2. B) Find f(x)’s smallest value, given that the period is [0,2pi/3]

Essay:

Write 800 words

“The containers for milk are always square boxes; containers for mineral water are always round bottles; round wine bottles are usually placed in square boxes. Write a composition on the subtle philosophy of the round and square.”

Chemistry:

Under the agency of catalyst, NH3 reacts with O2, so the chemical equation of I should be __________.

Arts:

Literature and art are products of the times in which they are created that also reflect the spirit of those times. Choose the correct pair below:

1: Dramatic changes in society following the Industrial Revolution–rise of Modern Art

2: Intensified social conflicts in Western capitalist countries–rise of Realism

3: Spiritual crisis in the West Post-WW1– birth of Impressionism

4: Prosperity of Western capitalism after WWII– birth of Romanticism.

I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.

I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!

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