What a High-Pressure College Entrance Exam Reveals About China

What a High-Pressure College Entrance Exam Reveals About China
School security guards check students’ national ID cards and testing ID cards to allow admittance to the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, in Gejiu, China, June 7, 2019 (Photo by Matthew Chitwood)

GEJIU, China—Luo Xing stood on the sidewalk outside Gejiu Third High School reviewing her Chinese language and literature test prep guide. She and hundreds of classmates were cramming last-minute for China’s high-stakes college entrance exam, known as the gaokao, as if 12 years of preparation were not enough. The bell finally rang and the school gates opened, allowing Luo Xing and the mass of students to push past throngs of anxious parents, SWAT police and a brigade of motorcycle cops. They disappeared into the school compound to face one of the hardest tests in the world.

More than 10 million Chinese students took this year’s gaokao, five times the record-breaking 2.1 million students in the United States who took the SAT last year. In China, the test falls on the same two days every year, June 7 and 8, which many regard as the most important time in a Chinese person’s life—“more important than your wedding day,” one parent told me. The single score from this test is the sole criteria for university admissions in China. A good score, many believe, leads to a good school, and with it the right networks, career opportunities and, of course, the right spouse. “The higher your score, the more options you have,” Luo Xing’s mother told me matter-of-factly. But a bad test day is the start of a lifelong uphill battle.

The gaokao not only shapes the course of a student’s life; it can also serve as a litmus test of trends in Chinese society—of technology as a tool for social stability, of superficial versus structural reforms, and of an avowedly patriotic form of education.

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