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How Now, Gaokao?

Rob Schmitz Jun 7, 2011

This week, we’re taking a look at how China’s test-focused education system may be hindering the country’s quest to build an economy based on innovation. At the center of this debate lies the gao kao, China’s National College Entrance Examination; a three-day test that kicked off yesterday for ten million high school graduates throughout China. Everyone from teachers to business leaders to government officials blame the gao kao for everything that’s wrong with China’s education system, but when I asked these critics what the alternative should be, I received the same response: Love it or hate it, the gao kao system is the most equitable one for China.

I heard this answer over and over. It was as if the exact wording of it had been drilled into people’s skulls in one of the rote memorization exercises so common in classrooms throughout China.

There’s a good reason for the repetition: It’s a difficult point to argue. One high school teacher put it this way: “If we allowed universities in China to choose students through an application process like you do in the U.S., the system would immediately become corrupt.”

The concern is that in the race to secure their descendants a slice of China’s economic pie, Chinese parents wouldn’t think twice about bribing admissions staff. Though the gao kao is not immune to this sort of corruption, the government usually ensures a transparent and fair test.

The high school teacher I spoke to isn’t alone in his opinion. An online poll conducted last year by China’s Sohu news reported that 79 percent of respondents favored the gao kao to a system in which individual colleges use their own criteria to select students. The reason? Corruption.

But that hasn’t stopped thirty of China’s top universities to begin administering their own entrance examinations and interviews to select five percent of their incoming students instead of just relying on the gao kao.

But there is another way; a way that’ll ensure you won’t have to take the gao kao at all. That would be taking the SAT and applying for U.S. colleges. The number of Chinese students studying at U.S. universities is five times greater than five years ago, and as more Chinese make enough to afford a U.S. college education, there promises to be even more in coming years.

Jiang Xueqin heads the international division at Peking University High School, a section of China’s prestigious high school that prepares students for U.S. colleges, thereby removing them from the gao kao system altogether. This week, Jiang wrote a well-crafted and insightful article in The Diplomat in which he brainstorms a suitable alternative to the gao kao. Sadly, the only viable alternative Jiang found was….the gao kao.

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