The problem with China's college entry test

rospective students prepare to attend an independent college entrance exams at China University of Geosciences(Wuhan) on February 26, 2011 in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. Chinese students wanting to get into some of China's most prestigious universities, began sitting independent college entrance exams a week ago, three months before the national one.

Tess Vigeland: There's not much left in the academic year for most high school seniors around the country -- some finals, a class party or two. Next step for many of them: college.

For 10 million brand new high school graduates in China, though, this is hell week. Three days of testing, starting tomorrow. It's known as the gao kao, the national college entrance examination. These three days will pretty much decide who gets into the best schools, who'll eventually get China's best jobs and who'll be the winners in China's 21st century economy. So, you know, no pressure.

Our China bureau chief Rob Schmitz has been working on a series about the gao kao that you'll hear starting tomorrow. Today, we feature Rob in conversation with my colleague Kai Ryssdal, who's in China on a reporting trip. They met up in front of local high school in Shanghai.


Kai Ryssdal: Rob, I was here five years ago. We did a show from here talking about the pace of economic change in this country, right? We're back now looking at what has happened in the past five years, what has changed. One of the things that has not changed in this country in 5,000 years is what's going to happen on the day of the gao kao at this high school that we're standing in front of. Give us a sense of what it's going to be like that day.

Rob Schmitz: The gao kao is by far the most important point in a young person's life in China. And inside this high school on the first day of the gao kao, we've got kids playing basketball and kind of milling around behind us now. But on the day of the gao kao, they're not going to be milling around. They're going to be pacing nervously. Their parents are going to be outside waiting for them. Maybe the parents will have bought a hotel room for them, just in case they get nervous. We just heard today that the taxi fleet of Shanghai is going to be burdened because all these parents have called taxis and reserved them, so that means the rest of us aren't going to have taxi service on those three days.

Ryssdal: Lovely.

Schmitz: So obviously this is a really, really important test.

Ryssdal: It's basically rote memorization, right? These kids have been studying for years.

Schmitz: Yeah. So the gao kao is at the center of China's education system. In that system, especially in high school, those three years of high school that Americans might spend taking your typical lib ed and science and math and everything, and thinking about problems and all this stuff -- Chinese students are actually preparing for this test. I mean, high schools in China are glorified test-prep institutions. The problem is that you're not spending that much time on actually solving real problems. You're busy memorizing correct answers.

Ryssdal: Right. So play that out for me for a minute into what happens after these kids get spit out of the Chinese colleges and how they then think about what we're all counting on them to do, which is help China drive the global economy.

Schmitz: China wants to shift its economy to a more innovative economy, an economy that's based on innovation, in the future. It's going to have a heck of a time doing that if the students that they're graduating cannot analytically think about something. They cannot take data points and synthesize information. It's that type of creative thinking that will spur an Apple, that will spur things that are in Silicon Valley. You don't have companies like that in China yet, and this is probably one of the big reasons why you don't have that.

Ryssdal: So what's the government doing because they obviously understand what has to happen to get China where it needs to be.

Schmitz: Right. They're trying to reform things, but a lot of the critics will say that China is trying to reform things much too slowly. And so more and more Chinese are getting more money, and the ones who can afford it are going to send their children to American colleges and that way they don't have to take the gao kao. They can go to an American university and learn all the things that they weren't learning in this Chinese education system there.

Ryssdal: And then they come back here?

Schmitz: A lot of the feedback I hear from business leaders here in Shanghai and Beijing is that these are like precious gems. The ones who actually go to an American college and come back. They're the ones who everyone wants, but they know that. So they're constantly approached by head hunters.

Ryssdal: Let me get you back to this test real quick before we go. The kids from this school are going to do pretty well, right? It's kids in Shanghai and Beijing who are going to do well and its the kids from Wuhan and the second- and third-tier cities who aren't going to do that well.

Schmitz: You're exactly right. We're in front of an elite school in an elite city in China. Most Chinese students are in the smaller cities -- a million, two million, right -- that you've never heard of. And yes, they do not have the educational quality of students here in Shanghai. The problem is that if this is the best that China can do, that's really scary.


Vigeland : That's our China correspondent Rob Schmitz talking with Kai, who's on assignment in Shanghai. Kai's been posting photos and updates from his trip.
You can read his latest report -- a visit to Shanghai's marriage market -- by clicking here. Read the rest of his posts at our China blog. And tune in tomorrow for the first installment of Rob's three-part report on education.

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