Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Gao Kao

Don't be confused by the cute rhyming name: the Gao Kao is anything but cute. The Gao Kao is China's grueling university entrance exam, which only 60% of students pass with a high enough score to get into one of China's universities.

It's Gao Kao time again here and, although we don't live near a high school, we've heard stories. First of all, I should explain how the test is regionally scored. There are five municipalities in China - Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai, Shangdong, and Chongqing - and students in these testing areas need lower scores than students in other areas due to factors like population and economy, which directly relate to student demographic in and financial dependence from China's universities, and, most importantly, on the quota set by an individual university's admissions office that dictates how many students they will accept from any province, with the highest number always allotted to the home province. Smaller cities tend to require higher scores because their populations are fewer and generally the money they send into the government in less. A passing score in Qinhuangdao, for instance, is 600; 100 points higher than needed in the municipalities. With the fixed admissions quota comes a few problems, namely with the uneven distributional of educational resources.

Before you start thinking that this is like the SATs with some regional discrimination, I must assure you, it's not. This test requires 2-3 days and most students spend the entire year preparing for it. I've heard stories that some students even get an IV drip so as not to interrupt their studying and to have enough energy to maintain testing. Students are subject to a thorough security check because the temptation to cheat is so sweet, and it is common to have ambulances and emergency workers on standby.

Beyond this, the Gao Kao, quite frankly, favors rich students. Wealthier students' parents can pay for top schools, tutors, extra classes, and, even to transfer their child to a school in a municipality where the required scores aren't so high. The uber-rich often seek to avoid the Gao Kao entirely by sending their kids abroad for high school where they aren't subject to this all-important test that stymies all creativity and puts all who are in its wake on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Yes, all. Parents worry for their children's futures: a top university is thought to be key to obtaining an elite job. Students must fret and toil over the test. Many teachers' salaries are tied to their students' performances on the Gao Kao and estimates that 10% of Chinese teachers quit due to the pressure. To top it off, a student is only permitted to take this test once in any given year.

Top performers receive national recognition and their proverbial 15 minutes of fame, but to what end? Employers care somewhat about what college prospective employees attended but, even in China, there's not a box where you can fill your standardized test score in on a job application.

So, really, what's the point? Beyond this being a sadistic right of passage, I can't see the silver the lining.

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