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Studying hard in the 1920s
The test-taking season is so stressful it is referred to as "Black July." Newspapers run many stories about students who have health problems while cramming of the test. Hepatitis and weight problems are especially common. In 2000, there was a news report about a schoolboy who bludgeoned his mother to death for badgering him about studying. On test day test takers make sure they show up on time. Parents crowd around the school where the test is held and stand around with blank expressions waiting for the test to finish. Schools that prepare students for exams is a big business.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Even supporters of the gaokao system acknowledge the level of anxiety involved. It is not uncommon for Chinese to have recurring nightmares about cramming for and taking the gaokao years after they have graduated from university. Many schools in China set aside the final year of high school as a cram year for the test. Taoyuan Yang, a student in Kunming, said he spent 13 hours a day in his senior year studying, and his parents even rented an apartment for him near his school so he would not have to waste time traveling back and forth to his parents’ home. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

“When I was getting close to the test, pretty much all I did besides eat and sleep was study,” Zhao Xiang, a high school graduate from Zunyi, Guizhou Province, said in an Internet chat interview. He said students’ lives before the gaokao were full of suffering: “Sometimes it was pressure from my family, sometimes it was the expectations from my teacher, sometimes it was pressure from myself. I was constantly in a really bad mood in the period before the gaokao. I was really confused.” [Ibid]

One student who did poorly the first time he took the gao kao told the New York Times the night before the exam, he lingered at his parents’ bedside, unable to sleep for hours. I was so nervous during the exam my mind went blank, he said. He scored 432 points out of a possible 750, too low to be admitted even to a second-tier institution. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 13, 2009]

“Silence reigned in the house for days afterward. My mother was very angry, he said. She said, “All these years of raising you and washing your clothes and cooking for you, and you earn such a bad score.”...I cried for half a month.Then the family arrived at a new plan: He would enroll in a military-style boarding school in Tianjin, devoting himself exclusively to test preparation, and retake the test.” [Ibid]

Cheating on the Gaokao Exam in China

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parents waiting
Despite stiff penalties, stories of cheating on the gaokao surface every year, ranging from leaked exam papers to fake candidates. In all, 2,645 cheaters were caught in 2008. Three separate scams were uncovered at single school in Zhejiang province. In 2009 organized cheating was found in the college exam venues of northeast Jilin province, western Guizhou province, northern Shanxi province and central Hunan province.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Each year, cheating scandals become the talk of China. One common tactic was for students to give their identification cards to look-alikes hired to take the test; later, many provinces installed fingerprint scanners at test centers. In 2008, three girls in Jiangsu Province were caught with mini-cameras inside their bras; their aim was to transmit images of the exam to people outside the classroom who would then provide answers. In 2012, the big scandal involved students in Huanggang, Hubei Province, famous in the past decade for churning out students with high scores; several dozen students were caught there last month for using small monitors, costing nearly $2,500 that resembled erasers and that allowed the students to receive electronic messages with test answers. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

After the 2008 exam, eight parents and teachers were jailed on state secret charges after using hi-tech communication devices to help pupils cheat on the gaokao. Those involved used scanners and wireless earpieces to transmit exam answers. They were sentenced to between six months and three years for illegally obtaining state secrets. It is not revealed whether any students were punished. [Source: The Guardian, Tania Branigan, April 3, 2009]

The Legal Daily newspaper said the parents began plotting in 2007 because their children's achievements were “not ideal”. One group bribed a teacher to fax them the test paper and paid university students to provide answers, which were transmitted to the children through earpieces. The ruse was discovered when police detected “abnormal radio signals” near the school. [Ibid]

Another man had created an even more elaborate - and expensive - system. He bribed a student to send him the questions using a miniature scanner and hired nine teachers to answer them. He then sent their work back to his son and the other boy. A teacher was also jailed for charging parents to deliver answers to students. The equipment he used failed on the day. [Ibid]

Concern about cheating is such that papers are kept under armed guard, and last year their classification was upgraded from “Secret” to “Top secret”.

Stephen Wong wrote in the Asia Times, “Chinese authorities have tried everything to prevent cheating. They installed closed-circuit television networks at exam venues, sent police to patrol exam rooms and made candidates of the national college entrance examinations sign an honesty declaration. However, as the Chinese say: “Good is strong, but evil is 10 times stronger”, and cheaters continue to develop more sophisticated techniques.”[Source: Stephen Wong Asia Times, August 22, 2009]

In June 2011 several days the gaokao took place, AP reported: “China's Education Ministry says police have detained 62 people for selling wireless headphones, two-way radios and other electronic devices to cheat on this week's nationwide college entrance exam. The ministry said the detentions are intended to protect the exam's integrity.

Marathon Cheating and the Gaokao

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gaokao stress
“In January 2010, thirty runners---almost a third of the runners who finished in the top 100---were disqualified from a marathon in the southern port city of Xiamen for cheating,” according to The Guardian. “Some of them hired imposters to compete in their place. Some competitors jumped into vehicles part way through the route, Chinese media reported, while others gave their time-recording microchips to faster runners. Numbers 8,892 and 8,897 both recorded good times---but only thanks to number 8,900, who carried their sensors across the finish line.” [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, January 21, 2010]

Jiefang Daily, the Shanghai Communist party newspaper, said organizers caught the cheats when they scanned video footage. The paper said most of those involved had apologized, but that those showing an “uncooperative attitude” would be prevented them from competing in future events. [Ibid]

“There was more than just prestige at stake in the marathon. Competitors stood to gain a crucial advantage in China's highly competitive university entrance exams. Those who finished in under two hours and 34 minutes could add extra points to their score in the gaokao, helping to explain why several of those disqualified came from a middle school in Shandong province.” [Ibid]

“The exams are so crucial to the future of Chinese children that both students and their families will go to extraordinary lengths to guarantee success. Last year, eight parents and teachers were jailed on state secret charges after using communication devices - including scanners and wireless earpieces - to help pupils cheat. [Ibid]

“Organizers of the international event in Xiamen have vowed to increase surveillance in future, saying that they had only 200 monitors to oversee 50,000 runners in the marathon and accompanying races. The problem is not a new one; in 2007, 19 competitors in Beijing were caught with multiple timing sensors. Nor is such cheating restricted to China. Rosie Ruiz remains infamous in the United States for her victory in the women's race in Boston in 1980. She ran only a few miles and covered most of the distance by subway.” [Ibid]

Critics of the Gaokao

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Debate appears to have grown more heated lately over the value of the gaokao. Critics say the exam promotes the kind of rote learning that is endemic to education in China and that hobbles creativity. It leads to enormous psychological strain on students, especially in their final year of high school. In various ways, the system favors students from large cities and well-off families, even though it was designed to create a level playing field among all Chinese youth. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

In May 2012, a 12-minute television segment railing against the exam by Zhong Shan, a well-known talk show host in Hunan Province, gained popularity on the Web and became a focal point for fury against the gaokao in particular and the Chinese educational system in general. Also widespread on the Internet were photographs taken in a Hubei Province classroom of students hooked up to intravenous drips

Perhaps most shocking to the public was the story of Liu Qing , a student from Xian, Shaanxi Province, whose family and teachers hid from her for two months the fact that her father had died so as not to upset her before the exam. Ms. Liu, according to reports in the Chinese news media, did not hear the news about her father until after she had completed the test. “We Chinese are indeed the most intelligent people in the world,” Mr. Zhong said near the end of his widely broadcast screed. “Is there no way at all we can avoid having the younger generation, the future of our nation, grow up in such a fearful, desperate and cruel atmosphere?”

Closer Look and Scrutiny of the Gaokao

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Standardized testing is common throughout the world, and students and parents in nations like the United States, Britain and France also complain loudly about the weight that admissions committees at universities place on such tests. But the admissions process in those countries is still considered much more flexible than that in Asian nations. The emphasis on entrance exams in China, South Korea and Japan induces widespread fear and frustration, leading more and more parents from elite families to look for alternatives, like sending their children abroad. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

Defenders of the gaokao, which has its roots in the imperial exam system, say the test is a crucial component in a meritocracy, allowing students from poorer backgrounds or rural areas to compete for spots in top universities. Nevermind that the odds are heavily against those students, since a quota system based on residency means it is much easier for applicants in cities like Beijing and Shanghai to get into universities there, which are generally considered the best in China. Peking University, among the most prestigious, does not release admission rates, but Mr. Zhong said on his television program that a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had one in 190 odds, or 0.5 percent. (Harvard had a 5.9 percent acceptance rate this year.)

Zhang Qianfan, a law professor Peking University who has studied the education system, said the main problem was the lack of slots at universities. Despite a boom in university construction in China, there is still a shortage. This year, there are seven million university slots, two million short of the number of gaokao test takers. The gap was much wider in 2006---there were 5.3 million slots then for 9.5 million test takers. The drop in the number of students taking the gaokao can be attributed to demographic trends in China and the rise in the number of students opting to study abroad.”Many people are harsh critics of the gaokao, but I think they somewhat miss the most crucial point, which is that the supply from decent academic institutions falls short of the demand from the public,” Mr. Zhang said. [Ibid]

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Taking the gaokao

Reforming the Gaokao

Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the Peking University High School, wrote in The Diplomat: “Everyone’s in agreement: the national college entrance examination (gaokao) robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood. So as gaokao students, with their thick textbooks and memory pills, sequester themselves in four-star hotels while their parents prowl the neighbourhood for construction noise and rambunctious restaurant patrons, now might be a good time to devise an alternative to the gaokao.” [Source: Jiang Xueqin The Diplomat. June 3, 2011]

On reforming the gaokao Jiang wrote: “First, this alternative must be an objective indicator of a student’s academic performance. College admissions committees or admission interviews would be unacceptable because it would offer too much power to individuals and institutions that can’t be trusted. No one would agree to a college lottery whereby qualified students are just randomly assigned a college. And artificial intelligence technology hasn’t yet advanced to the point where computers can replace college admissions officers. Thus, the only alternative seems to be a series of tests.”

“But even with tests we need to consider what we want to test. If we were to test writing and thinking ability, then that would mean an automatic bias towards the children of well-educated parents who have from an early age discuss books, current affairs, and travel plans with their child over the dinner table. Moreover, to teach thinking and writing (or any soft skills such as creativity and collaboration) would require highly specialised and highly professional teachers who would naturally congregate in expensive private schools or prestigious public schools in Beijing and Shanghai. And if this were the case, China would just be like the United States, where education is monopolised by the self-perpetuating and self-interested educated elite, and social mobility through education becomes a distant dream for everyone else.” [Ibid]

“But China has 800 million peasants who depend on schooling as their child’s only chance out of the rice fields. Rural children don’t have access to the libraries, well-trained teachers, and intellectual spaces that wealthy cities can offer---all they have is their willingness to work hard to improve themselves. If Chinese believe in fairness and social mobility, then tests must be more about the student’s ability to memorise the textbooks he has access to, rather than about his ability to think critically, which is the result of making the most of a special set of resources available only to society’s elite.” [Ibid]

“So, if we were to start from scratch and try to build an alternative to the gaokao, we would end up with as the only viable alternative---the gaokao. That’s what a lot of people tend to forget: that given the complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions, given the stifling poverty that most Chinese find themselves in, and given China’s endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China’s scare education resources.” [Ibid]

“Yes, the images of children memorising and regurgitating away for 18 years may be disheartening. The poor eyesight, bad posture, and crushing of imagination, independence, and initiative will haunt them for the rest of their lives. But we must remember that many of these children and their families find themselves fortunate just to be able to dream of a better life.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: China Smacks, Shanghaiist, China Daily, Wall Street Journal, Xinhua, Photobucket

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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