Judgement Day: A Shanghai Teenager Receives His Score

A few weeks ago, I reported a series of stories about how China's test-obsessed education system is struggling to produce the innovators it'll need to compete in a global economy. My first story focused on 18 year-old Wan Chao, a senior at an elite high school in Shanghai who was studying for the gao kao (China's college entrance examination) by repeating English words from a dictionary aloud.

When I asked Wan about how his studies were going, he told me he was confident he'd score high enough to enter a university, where he'd realize his dream of becoming a teacher. His mother didn't share his confidence. She sat in the next room, bickering with her husband about Wan's study habits. Wan's mother didn't think her son was studying hard enough. His father urged his wife to relax and stop pressuring their son.

Earlier this week, Wan--along with millions of other college hopefuls--found out their scores.

Of all the students in Shanghai, there was a tie for the top score. Two students scored 584, and that earned both of them spots at one of China's most prestigious universities, Tsinghua. In order to enter college, a student in Shanghai needed a score of at least 412 on the gao kao. So what was Wan's score?

350.

His father summed up his son's score in one word: "Terrible!" Wan didn't care to elaborate on his this assessment. He was still shell-shocked. What does he plan to do now? "I don't know," he said. Will he take the gao kao again? "I don't know." What has he been doing since he discovered his score? "Nothing."

Wan's score is high enough to gain entrance to a vocational college, but he won't become a teacher that way. His options are to attend a vocational college or to wait another year and retake the gao kao next June.

Wan's story is being repeated throughout China. As more students compete to attend college, fewer will gain entrance. Even those who do get in will find it difficult to find work that satisfies them once they graduate. A quarter of last year's college grads have yet to find work.

Like many in the one-child generation, all of Wan's parents' hopes lie on his shoulders. I just hope Wan can handle the pressure that is no doubt strengthening now as his options become more limited.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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