Gaokao testing in China
Photo from Business Insider

In just a few weeks, millions of Chinese students in their last year of senior secondary education will gather in specified testing sites to take the gāokǎo (高考), the notorious entrance exam for post-secondary admittance. In English, it goes by the name National Higher Education Entrance Exam. The gāokǎo lasts nine hours and is administrated on July 7-9 each year. Last year, 9.4 million students took the the exam.[1]

Most provinces follow the 3+X system for gāokǎo administration, whereby each student must test in Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language (usually English), and then choose one elective subject in either social sciences or natural sciences.

Unlike the SAT or ACT in the states, a student’s performance on the gāokǎo does not just join their portfolio of academic accomplishments. By and large, it is the gāokǎo score that determines whether or not one will enter university. Gāokǎo scores predict one’s future education and career.

Chinese high school students
Photo from Radio Free Asia

Fierce competition and study stress characterizes the gāokǎo. For lower-class and especially rural candidates, the gāokǎo offers one of the only opportunities for a better life. In 2012, 43% of Chinese high school graduates enrolled in higher education. Contrast that with America, where almost 70% of high school graduates attended post-secondary institutions that same year.

The gāokǎo finds its roots in the keju (科举), a civil service examination exam that emerged in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), gained greater utilization in the Tang Dynasty (A.D 618 – A.D. 907), and was abolished in 1905. It first surfaced in 1952, a few years after Mao Zedong established the Communist People’s Republic of China, but the Cultural Revolution led to its suspension fourteen years later.[2] Deng Xiaoping reintroduced the exam in 1977.

As Chinese students progress from primary school (grades 1-6) to junior secondary school (grades 7-9) to senior secondary school (grades 10-12), the school days lengthen to make room for extra studying and extracurricular investments. In some schools, the entire last and third year of senior secondary school is spent preparing for the gāokǎo. (Noteworthily, admission to junior secondary school also requires passing an entrance exam called the zhōngkǎo. This exam has a much higher pass rate.)

Image from HechingerEd

To ensure peaceful testing arrangements, local governments will often restrict traffic and ban noisy construction within 500 meters of the testing site.[3] Some schools have installed metal detectors and surveillance cameras to guard against cheating.

As with many standardized examination, the gāokǎo has been dealt much criticism, particularly from the international community. Several stories report about the strains on mental health that the high stakes of this one examination impresses on studying students. One Guangzhou student named Hannah Liao remembers losing her appetite, suffering from insomnia, and having to take IV drips to concentrate when the stress from studying overwhelmed her.[4]

What do you think of China’s gāokǎo?

[1] History and controversy of the gaokao
[2] History, reform, and significance of the gaokao
[3] Arrangements for the gaokao
[4] The good, the bad, and the ugly of the gaokao