Gaokao supporters say it helps social mobility, but others say fairness reforms needed

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/7 18:58:39

As the gaokao continues to draw criticism over whether it's a fair test, some people have begun to defend the college entrance exam and China's education system

Defenders say a standardized test is the only way to assure fairness and that it gives rural children an equal chance

Critics say the fairness of the gaokao is overrated and reform is badly needed

Exam takers enter the Beijing No.8 Middle School to sit the gaokao, China's college entrance examination, on June 6. Photo: Li Hao/GT

It was 9 am, and Liang Shi, a chubby middle-aged man with greying hair, walked into one of the hundreds of teahouses that dot the streets of Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province. After ordering himself a cup of green tea, he sat down at his usual spot, piled up dozens of textbooks on the table and began to immerse himself in high school problems and exercises.

The next day, the 50-year-old, originally hailing from a rural part of the province, would be sitting the gaokao - China's grueling annual national college entrance examinations - for the 21st time.

The owner of a small construction materials business in Chengdu, Liang has handed most of the day-to-day running of the family business over to his wife, and spends most of his time studying in teahouses just so he could one day enter the university of his dreams.

Four decades after China reinstated the gaokao at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Liang still believes that the exam will somehow change his destiny, or at least his social standing. "I still hope that I can become an intellectual - I have admired them since childhood," he told the Global Times when asked about his motivation.

For more than 10 years, Liang was only able to get a little over 300 points out of 750 in the exam, earning him the nickname "Three hundred" among locals. In 2014, he hit 400 for the first time. Last year, he got 453, a personal high score that was able to get him a place at a second-rate university in Sichuan. But he was still over 100 points behind the requirement of his dream school - Sichuan University's College of Mathematics. He decided to try one more time.

Liang's perseverance might move some. But for the critics of China's gaokao system, he is merely one more victim of the brutal exam and China's exam-oriented education system that stems from it. For them, China is badly in need of a reform to end the current system that they think stifles creativity, innovation and critical thinking.

But as criticisms grow, many have also begun to defend the gaokao.

Superficial changes

In 1977, reformist paramount leader Deng Xiaoping reinstated the gaokao that was cancelled for 11 years after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, during which it was replaced with an admission system in which workers, farmers and soldiers were recommended to colleges.

"It was monumental to the rebuilding of China's higher education system, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution," Xie Xiaoqing, an education professor at Beijing Language and Culture University, told the Global Times.

The resumption of the gaokao also marked the reconstruction of social justice, which was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution. Setting no limit on age or political background, the 1977 gaokao was a historic event that allowed all students who wanted to have a shot at the exam a chance. A total of 5.7 million high school students, a record high, whose studies were halted for various reasons during the Cultural Revolution, signed up for the exam to compete for 270,000 slots in colleges. As a result, the admission rate that year, less than 5 percent, was the lowest in the history of the gaokao to date.

But 40 years after its resumption, with the huge expansion of Chinese colleges and increase in Chinese college graduates, many experts believes that its time for another change.

"People are driven to study either out of their curiosity for knowledge, or for utilitarian reasons. The gaokao, and the exam-oriented education system, squashes the internal motivation for children to learn," Xie said.

"Today, China's education system faces the same crisis it faced 40 years ago. And just like 40 years ago, China is badly in need of reform," he said.

It's not that there haven't been reforms in the past four decades. Over the years, the gaokao has undergone many changes, but most of these changes have centered on the number and combination of subjects tested in the exam. None of these changes touches the core problem that China's college application process is still almost totally score-based.

Trust the test

The gaokao also has its defenders. One of the most famous is Liu Haifeng.

Today, he is the dean of the Institute of Education at the prestigious Xiamen University, East China's Fujian Province. But 40 years ago, he was one of hundreds of thousands of "educated youths" who were sent to the countryside, and his life revolved around farm work in a village in Longyan county, Fujian.

As both parents were teachers in a Fujian county,  Liu was labelled as having a bad family background during the Cultural Revolution. Such a family background meant that he would never be recommended to college, and the best future he could think of was becoming a factory worker in the city.

But the gaokao changed Liu's destiny. Liu signed up for the gaokao in 1977, and was enrolled into Xiamen University, majoring in history. After completing a master's degree, he got a job at the university's higher education research institute.

That experience also turned him into a defender of the gaokao system. Although he thinks education reform is inevitable, he is cautious that reforms might affect the fairness of the gaokao system.

"We must prevent [the gaokao] from falling back into a competition of wealth and guanxi (relationships). From this perspective and under China's current situation, no matter how we reform the gaokao, a standardized exam should still be the major criteria," he told the Global Times.

On the Internet, many supporters of gaokao think a standardized test is the only fair way of evaluation possible in China.

"Scores are the only tool which poor people's children can use to compete with rich people's children," Diguaxionglaoliu, a famous patriotic blogger, wrote on his Weibo, winning much support.

Some even attached political meaning to the debate. Lu Jianguo, the head of the education bureau of Ganyu district in Lianyungang, East China's Jiangsu Province, said in a speech before the city's Party school in April that sticking to China's exam-oriented education is a kind of "political correctness." He argues that exam-oriented education has been unfairly stigmatized in the past years, and that denying exam-oriented education is denying the progress China has made in the past decades.

Lu listed China's technological achievements in the past decade, such as the nation's high-speed rail network, and asked, "Behind Chinese technological advances are highly competitive teams of scientists and technicians. How many of these Chinese scientists and technicians received a liberal education?"

"I often tell [my district's] headmasters and teachers, if your students are the children of parents who are featured in Forbes, then a liberal education is enough for them … They don't have to go to college to achieve financial freedom. The reality is that most of our students are rural children who need to alter their destiny through their studies. Is it wrong to focus on exam-oriented education?" he said.

Fair or not

But many critics believe the gaokao's fairness is only skin-deep. "True fairness should entail a more professional way of evaluation that isn't just based on points, but includes factors including where one goes to school, how one got the points," National Institute of Education Sciences researcher Chu Chaohui told the Global Times.

A point gained by a student from a big city and a point gained by a student from a rural village, for example, are not equal, Chu argues, and therefore the current system is unfair to rural students.

It is also a recognized fact that it is becoming more and more difficult for rural students to enter college, due to the growing gap in resources allocated to rural and urban schools.

Even the central government has acknowledged this problem. "In the past, when I went to college, 80 percent of the classmates came from rural areas. Now the percentage of rural students is falling. This issue often comes to my mind," then premier Wen Jiabao said in 2009.

"Therefore, defending the gaokao with fairness or the protection of interests of rural students is ungrounded," Xie said. He advises using a combination of high school academic performance and standardized exams to evaluate students, with the former being the major criteria, so as to give more say to high school teachers and more autonomy to colleges.

Newspaper headline: Path to the top

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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