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Sub-anchor: How does 'Gaokao' work?


06-07-2016 06:04 BJT

For more on Gaokao, we are joined in the studio by my colleague Wu Haojun.

Q1. We know millions of students take Gaokao every year, which to a certain extent could determine their future. So how exactly does such a critical and life-changing exam work?

Well, Chinese people have kind of a love hate relationship with Gaokao. They regard Gaokao as something you have to experience once in your life. It's not just the result of which is life-changing but the experience itself is transformative.

First, let's put a little bit of context here. In 2015, 75 percent of students who took the national college entrance exam were accepted into some sort of tertiary educational institution. But that number could be misleading as well. Only one out of ten exam-takers was granted admission into China's so-called first-tier universities. And that's where the stakes are high.

Here's how the exam works. There are two or three full days of exams in early June. Test topics depend on the policies of a province, but usually, students take tests about Chinese, English, math, and usually a combination of liberal arts or science-oriented subjects. And the vast majority of people tag this as a "once in a lifetime exam." Not that technically they can't re-take it, but they find the whole experience too stressful and unbearable to do it a second time. Most schools cram three years of high school education into two, and save the final year only for exam preparations. That means drills day after day after day.

And when the stakes are high, the stress is high too. Some parents resort to praying at local temples as a way to relieve stress. But exam-takers don't get to let their hair down until after it's all done. Then, it's a national, cathartic experience: it may involve hugging, crying, and ripping up textbooks and practice exam papers. It may seem a little extreme. But it's certainly no ordinary process.

Q2. Chinese universities have relied on the Gaokao system to choose talents for decades, but it's by no means a perfect one. What's the biggest criticism Gaokao has drawn so far?

Fairness is what's always been put into question. Throughout the past decades, the national college entrance exam has given Chinese students a relatively level playing field. Barring cases of corruption, it doesn't really matter if students come from a wealthy or poor family. Score is the only thing that matters. Your parents' alumni status certainly won't be able to help you in any way. However, China's best universities are mostly located in the country's most economically-developed and affluent municipalities and provinces.

For example, the Chinese capital of Beijing is home to some 20 plus first-tier universities, while the southern island province of Hainan claims only one. And the problem is these universities get to set their own admissions quota for each province, always favoring their own.

In 2015, the admissions rate for students from Beijing into first tier universities was about 25 percent. For Hainan? Only 10 percent. Government officials and experts have long known this regional discrimination, but the most used line of defense has been "'Gaokao is not perfect, but it's the best we got". But for parents and students, there's simply too much at stake to let things simply remain.

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