China College Entrance Exam, Gaokao, Being Reconsidered

Standardized testing is no foreigner to education -- both in the United States and abroad. But while the high-stakes tests are being criticized for their emphasis stateside, China's notoriously stressful college entrance exam is a whole separate animal, and is now being reevaluated, The New York Times reports.

Chinese students applying for colleges sat for the multiple-day test, the gaokao, last month and are holding onto the edges of their seats as news of their scores roll in this week. These scores may determine a student's life trajectory, the Times reports.

Critics say the gakao burdens high schoolers with undue stress and rewards rote memorization over genuine learning.

Students in China specialize early, selecting either the arts or humanities track at the beginning of high school and studying their chosen field for the next two or three years.

Yang Taoyuan, a student in the Chinese province of Yunnan, told the Times that during his last year of high school, he studied for the gaokao 13 hours per day. He even rented an apartment close to school so he would not waste time commuting.

“When I was getting close to the test, pretty much all I did besides eat and sleep was study,” Zhao Xiang, a high school graduate in Guizhou province told the Times.

Critics argue that the be-all, end-all status of the gaokao encourages students to pursue unhealthy behavior to gain an edge.

Earlier this year, shocking images surfaced of Chinese students at the Xiaogan No.1 High School in China's Hubei province studying for the gaokao while hooked up to IV drips. The IV drips contained amino acids, the school said, which provided the students with extra energy.

Similar photos have depicted students preparing for the exam while breathing from oxygen tanks.

During this year's exam, a student, Lu Pin, reportedly jumped to his death after arriving late to the test facilities and being denied entry, the Global Times reports.

In June, prominent talk show host Zhong Shan slammed the gaokao in a widely publiscized television clip.

“We Chinese are indeed the most intelligent people in the world,” Mr. Zhong said. “Is there no way at all we can avoid having the younger generation, the future of our nation, grow up in such a fearful, desperate and cruel atmosphere?”

Other critics argue that the gaokao encourages a lockstop approach to learning, in which students can succeed by penning canned answers rather than thinking through solutions on their own.

These considerations and others have spurred the South University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen to pilot a college admissions process in which students may apply to the university without having taken the gaokao.

"I hope SUSTC will be a new model for China's education revolution that could also promote China's scientific system revolution," university President Zhu Qingshi said.

In a triumph for education reformers, the Chinese Ministry of Education granted SUSTC with legitimate status within Chinese higher education. In return, SUSTC agreed to consider gaokao scores as a significant, but not deciding, factor in university admissions.