You may have noticed two otherwise inconspicuous high school students recently featured on the front page of the Xin Jing Bao (The Beijing News), and if not, you probably noticed that something strange was going on earlier this month. In both instances, the gaokao (高考) is to blame.
The gaokao, or the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, is the culmination of 12 years of schooling for more than 10 million Chinese students. As the (almost) sole determinant for college admissions decisions, the gaokao dominates the Chinese educational system as well as the lives of students who intend to matriculate to universities after secondary school.
Those lucky enough to get top scores in their districts (like the two students featured in The Beijing News) become overnight celebrities, earning the admiration and envy of 10 million of their peers. However, even after scoring well on the exams, many students find themselves suffering from “post-exam syndrome” and end up filling the three months between the gaokao and college entrance with nothing but sleeping, eating, and watching TV.
For those unfortunate enough to receive less-than-desirable scores, the future becomes a hazy and unwelcoming place. While the national obsession before the test causes enough stress to unnerve even the strongest student, picking up the pieces after a failed gaokao attempt can be a living nightmare. Many students will opt to spend another entire year studying in order to up their scores, but they are the lucky ones; many have faced mental breakdowns and some even resorted to suicide.
But even with all the hype, is the gaokao really that much harder than other standardized tests across the world? The SAT provides plenty of stress for American students, and there are also plenty of horror stories about Japan’s national exams.
Tests like the SAT, though, have none of the finality that the gaokao has–it’s easy to take the SAT several times and a bad score is not a death sentence. And even if several countries (like Japan) have similar tests to China, Chinese students still end up devoting more precious hours to studying than their counterparts around the world.
In the end though, does the gaokao do its job? Pretty much no one likes the exam, but it is a very effective and egalitarian system that identifies talented and well-motivated students with decent accuracy. While of course we can’t wish for everything, perhaps there may be middle ground between tests like the SAT and the gaokao in the future that retains the fairness of the Chinese system while lowering the stress and obsession. Because God knows that those 10 million gaokao test takers could use a break.
For more, click here, or to try your hand at the gaokao, click here.