Despite reforms, China's exam 'factories' continue to grow in popularity

By Zhang Hui Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/7 15:18:40

Locals and parents crowd the streets to see students of Maotanchang Middle School about to take the upcoming national college entrance exam on Monday. Photo: IC

As this year's fate-defining national college entrance examinations, also known as the gaokao, kick off Wednesday, China's infamous good-grades factory Maotanchang Middle School in Maotanchang, a small town in East China's Anhui Province, will soon start enrolling students who think they might need another shot at the exams. 

Students who suspect they might need to attempt the grueling gaokao again can register and hand in their exam admission ticket on June 9, the day after the test.

They will need to pay tuition fees ranging from 2,500 yuan ($368) to 48,000 yuan for the first semester based on their gaokao scores, according to the enrollment guide published on the school's website. 

"We plan to establish 100 classes each having more than 100 students this year," said a teacher at the school surnamed Yang. These classes, plus the school's 10,000 senior year students, means the school prepares about 20,000 test-takers a year.

A total of 9.4 million students nationwide will sit the two-day gaokao this year, which tests their knowledge of subjects including Chinese literature, math, English, physics, chemistry and history. 

Its tight schedule, militarized discipline and huge number of students, have earned the school the nickname "the exam factory."

Such exam factories, have seen their popularity explode in recent years, with experts pointing to the excessive focus given to exam results in China's education system as the cause.

Hell to heaven

To Zhou Changzhu, 22, the year he spent studying in Maotanchang was a journey from hell to heaven.

"At first, it's like I was locked up in a prison," Zhou, now a college student at the Hefei University of Technology in Anhui, told the Global Times.

He failed his first attempt at the gaokao in 2013, which he blames on the weak management of the high school he attended in Hefei.

"I messed around at that time, so I applied for this school to get strict management," Zhou said.

He recalled that he had to study around 16 hours each day from 6 am to 11 pm in Maotanchang, and his only break was for lunch and a few hours on Sunday afternoon. All the rest of his waking hours were spent on endless academic exercises.

"We had over 180 students squeezed in one classroom, and teachers had to use loudspeakers to make sure students in the back could hear clearly," Zhou recalled.

The situation has gotten even tougher in recent years. Yang said that the school bans students from owning phones and computers.

Through its intensive training and strict management, 80 to 90 percent of Maotanchang Middle School's students have gotten into college in the past decade, a record of success that continues to draw students from all over China.

The economy of Maotanchang, a small town with roughly 5,000 residents, wholly depends on the school. 

According to Yang, the school only provides dormitories for female students due to limited space, boys have to rent apartment outside school.

Thus, many students' parents quit their jobs and rent houses to support their children's studies, driving the local real estate market.

Zhou's mum paid 10,000 yuan a month for a small room in 2013, and now the average rent of apartments in the area has doubled.

"All the cost and effort was worthwhile, as my score improved by 120 points and I was eventually enrolled by my dream university," Zhou said.

Copy and paste

Experts said that China's score-oriented exam system should be blamed for the growth of exam factories.

"Under the current system, students just need intensive training and exercises to get a high score, thus the way these factories work is easy to copy," Chu Zhaohui, a research fellow at the National Institute of Educational Sciences, told the Global Times.

Students at those schools do not learn how to be independent, and the consequence is that they rarely do exceptionally well at university and in any future career that requires independent learning and analytical thinking, according to Chu. 

Such exam factories will become less popular only when China's education system emphasizes individual personal development and comprehensive assessment, Chu said.

The gaokao has been the primary standard used to evaluate college applicants for the past four decades, though China's top education authority has launched a series of reforms since 2013, aiming to establish a modern examination and recruitment system by 2020.

Newspaper headline: Pupil production line

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