All is Quiet in the Gao Kao Zone

Today is the final day of the gao kao. Tomorrow, nearly 10 million high school graduates may finally rest. They've studied for this test for years; now they'll wait a few weeks to discover their results, their fate. On my way to work this morning, I saw a sign propped up between lanes of traffic. It read: "Gao Kao Zone: No Honking Allowed" While I stopped in the middle of the street to take a photo of it, someone honked at me. I hope I didn't forever alter a test-taker's fate.

On a more serious note, the fate of a boy at a test-taking center in Hunan province was sealed on Tuesday when, after arriving at the gao kao center 15 minutes late, test administrators refused to let him in the examination room. The boy reportedly was so upset that he jumped out a sixth-story window, killing himself.

Last year, at least three students taking the gao kao killed themselves during the three-day test. It's the tragic side to a society where the pressure to get ahead is, at times, unbearable. It's a lethal combination of an economy on speed, a nearly unsustainable population, and a culture that demands excellence of its youth. When you add the one-child policy, you end up with all this pressure tightly focused like a magnifying glass on an ant on one single child; one child who is responsible to carry on an entire family's reputation, traditions, and bloodline.

Those who can afford it are deciding to remove themselves from this exam-based system altogether. While I was reporting the stories for my series on China's education crisis, I met a family in Beijing who was encouraging their daughter to skip the gao kao and focus on applying for an American university instead. In their tiny apartment on the outskirts of the city, the 16 year-old girl and her mother showed me their preparation materials for this goal: a stack of books devoted to studying for the SAT. They had removed their daughter from the gao kao system, but they had replaced it with another test; one that would have to be taken in a foreign language.

I spoke with the girl in Chinese, but I asked her if we could switch to English so that I could see for myself if she was ready for the SAT. After two sentences in broken English, she gave up, her mother looking on, nervously. Her mother, realizing that her daughter was nowhere near the language proficiency needed for the SAT, asked me for advice. The girl was at the top of her class at one of the best schools in Beijing. There was no doubt she'd do well on the gao kao. "This is just my opinion, I may be wrong..." I said hesitantly, hoping they'd get a second opinion but feeling obliged to help, "...but you might want to have her take the gao kao, see how she does, focus on learning English, and maybe try to apply for graduate school in the US later on when her English is better. I don't think there's a hurry--US universities will always be there."

The mother nodded her head, processing my opinion. The girl smiled. She seemed relieved to be hearing this. Relieved, because for her, the gao kao was the easy way out.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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