Gaokao exam still fairest to change destiny

Xinhua News Agency


A total of 9.4 million students sat China's annual college entrance exam, or "gaokao," on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The number is 20,000 less than last year, a fall authorities attribute to hundreds of thousands of would-be candidates choosing to apply to foreign universities instead or having been granted early admission.

The sole bridge to university admission, the gaokao has suffered ubiquitous criticism, and is undergoing a major overhaul.

Still, the overwhelming majority of Chinese students and parents regard the exam as the fairest way of universities selecting people for enrollment and a competition none of them can afford to lose.

Different Choices

The gaokao is traditionally seen as a fate-changer that determines whether one can be enrolled for higher education and climb up the social ladder, go back to high school for another year and try again, or try to find a job in a fiercely competitive society.

The emphasis on exams and the high likelihood of not reaching the standards for admission to a top university have led more and more families, especially wealthier ones, to look for alternatives.

Zhou Shifang, a mother waiting outside a test center in Beijing, told Xinhua she had been very nervous about her son's performance in the exam.

Zhou's son, Huang Rui, is an art student who has passed an independent recruitment test and partially secured a place at Tsinghua University's Academy of Arts and Design.

As long as Huang can reach the minimum score of Beijing's admission line, he will be admitted by Tsinghua, the best university in China.

But Zhou has still reserved other plans for her son. Huang has applied to more than a dozen American colleges and received offer letters from several of them.

"My best hope is that my son will do well in the gaokao, and stay in China instead of going abroad," Zhou said.

Like the case of Huang, there has been a growing trend of Chinese students applying for overseas study. Students now can choose a battery of TOFEL, AP, ACT and SAT exams to complete their admissions portfolio as a backup plan in case their gaokao scores turn out unsatisfactory.

Total Chinese enrollment hit 124,552 in the United States in 2014/2015 academic year, up nearly 13 percent year on year, representing more than a quarter of the international students, according to the U.S. Open Doors Report.

Still Most Fair for Common Family

Unlike Huang's multiple choices, many kids from poorer families have the gaokao as the only path to change their destiny.

Li Mingze waited for his son outside a test center in Shanglin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, south China.

As a farmer living in his native village with an annual household income of about 20,000 yuan (3,050 U.S. dollars), Li said his son's education had definitely been no match for that received by children born to the middle class.

Li said only 10 of his son's 60 classmates entered high school in Shanglin, while most others became migrant workers in developed coastal cities.

Li said both he and his son believe the gaokao is the best way to change their family's social status.

"After years of reform and educational progress, the odds to success for grassroots students are much higher. Though the gaokao is a very narrow path, rural children embrace it as the best chance to enjoy a better life in future," Li said.

Thousands of other students with similarly limited options as Li's son head to Maotanchang Town in east China's Anhui Province to undertake ruthless exam cramming every year.

Students at Maotanchang Middle School study nearly 16 hours each day without a singly day off for an entire year.

Reforms Underway

Though the gaokao will not disappear, new rules are being introduced for a better and more rounded appraisal of candidates' competence.

Top players such as Tsinghua and Peking University have been granted rights to place more weight on their independent recruitment tests -- those who pass the test enjoy bonus points towards enrollment.

Since last year, students have no longer been rewarded extra points for sports or artistic achievements, as loose supervision allowed room for this allowance to be manipulated by cheats.

Central authorities has rolled out reforms that include a multi-evaluation system relying on more than just academic scores.

They also unveiled plans to tip the scales more toward underprivileged groups by expanding enrollment quotas for students from less developed central and western parts of the country.

Guarantee of Fair Play

A tiny group of cheats threaten the integrity of the gaokao.

The Ministry of Education vowed vigorous efforts to ensure fairness in this year's university admission procedures.

Surrogate exam takers, usually undergraduate students, will pay a heavy price including dismissal from their current university.

2016 is also the first year when gaokao cheating will be treated as a criminal offense. An amendment to the Criminal Law, which took effect on Nov. 1, 2015, stipulates that those found guilty of organizing or facilitating cheating could be imprisoned for up to seven years.

Though many believe the exam-centered mindset does no good to youngsters' creativity, any radical change will spawn a public backlash as the gaokao is still widely regarded as the fairest means of selection.

"People are worried about abuse of power and back-door dealing if there is no clear standard for admission," said Chu Chaohui, a senior researcher with the National Institute of Education Sciences.

The gaokao is a very important channel of social mobility, and currently the most effective and fairest way to select talent, said Zhou Keda, head of the sociology department of the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences.

"The system has been tested and improved over the past decades, so it is better to stick to it if a multi-evaluation cannot guarantee a strict and transparent process with supervision, otherwise many disadvantaged people may lose their chance to get enrolled," Zhou said.