The Test that’s the door to the future

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The futures of high school seniors in China were set in stone about a week ago, when the grades for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or gaokao (高考), were released to test-takers across the country. According to Edward Wong of the New York Times, families huddled in front of computers and phones, waiting for that sole score that determines what university a high school senior can attend, and by extension, where they can (and will) be headed in life.

In a country where academic achievement is the be all and end all, gaokao carries with it the hopes and dreams of many young Chinese citizens, as well as their families. While the gaokao has been criticized for favouring wealthier citizens who can afford the extra tutoring, or with less limiting admission quotas for citizens of areas like Beijing that house arguably the two most prestigious universities in China – Beijing and Tsinghua University, many believe that the gaokao can change one’s fate. For families living on less than a dollar a day, the gaokao represents the doors to the future, into China’s “Ivy League”, and then on to a good job, a good pay, and a good life. As such, this standardized test brings with it year of intense (read: understatement) cramming, rote learning, psychological strain, stress, blood, sweat, tears, and competition. As the China Digital Times wrote recently, “The competition for a prestigious university seemed to start when my son went to school when he was 6 years old. Children compete for higher scores to enter a better middle school, then a better high school. And all this preparation is for today’s fight,” said Zhao Xichen, a father in Shaanxi province, whose child attends gaokao this year.” In addition, a recently released article showed students of the Xiaogan No.1 High School in Hubei Province hooked up to intravenous drips hanging from the classroom ceiling for nutrition, allowing them to study without interruption. Earlier pictures depict students breathing from oxygen tanks while dutifully hitting the books.

Taken in early June over two or three days, the gaokao covers three subjects – Chinese, Mathematics and English (usually) – and three other subjects, such as biology, physics, chemistry, political science, history or geography. While, as Forbes writes, the SATs and the gaokao are incredibly similar on certain respects, with cheating scandals that range from impersonations to tiny electronic transmitters shaped like erasers or embedded in clothing, the gaokao is evidently largely a different sort of monster. Gaokao features strangely surreal essay questions like “why chase mice when there are fish to eat” (有鱼吃还捉老鼠?), and math questions that make even top students grip their faces in despair.

In fact, senior year in China is dedicated solely to cramming for the gaokao. Yet, although 9 million students across China took the gaokao this year, it is estimated that fewer than 7 million of them will make it to university, which implies that not making it into the top 2/3 of the gaokao, which is only administered once a year, could very well land a student in another year of 13-hour school days, as Yang Taoyuan, a student in the Chinese province of Yunnan expressed to the Times.

View a photoset: 35 years of gaokao


  1. very true

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