Rethink the Gaokao

By Yifu Dong

Gaokao, in Chinese, is short for the National College Entrance Examination. This exam is the single most important test for college, for, in most cases, the score on this test solely determines whether one can get into a university, or which university one can attend. The test happens once a year in early June, and is offered in different versions in different areas. In Beijing, where I went to high school, students could choose between a science curriculum and a humanities curriculum at the beginning of 11th grade; so besides Chinese, math and English in the Gaokao, they get either a “comprehensive science test” consisting of physics, chemistry and biology or a “comprehensive humanities test” consisting of history, geography and politics.

I can go into all the details and technicalities of the test and the system itself, but clearly others, both Chinese and foreign, have done extensive studies on the Gaokao. Generally, people feel that there is something wrong about the Gaokao system, but most of them put forward the argument that the Gaokao is the best system possible for China. Those who do not get the lion’s share of the benefit from the Gaokao system, such as the majority of students in the countryside and the students in struggling low-tier urban schools, defend the system either because of a natural psychological tendency called the system justification effect or but the belief that they did not work hard enough to earn success.  And the beneficiaries seldom feel an urge to criticize the system that basically guaranteed their spots at the top.

Although there is no ready alternative, I believe we have to be on the constant lookout for possible reform to reinvigorate the education system.

For most teachers, parents and students, the people who are in close contact with the real substance of the system, Gaokao, or the Chinese testing system as a whole, involves too much rote learning and smothers imagination and creativity. Such cliché no longer explains everything.

First of all, testing is a perverse method in education. I think it’s fair to view it as a necessary evil, but an overdose of test taking, or a system orbiting around testing, is very dangerous. I’ve always believed that there is a “test taking gene” (which is of course scientifically unsound). Test taking may just be a set of skills like writing, music, math, and other widely recognized areas of intelligence; some people are naturally good at test taking, while others are just not.

The result of such a test-oriented system is not just a dearth of creativity and imagination, but also dehumanization; “humanity” can sum up the things students have lost in the process of intensive test-taking. In a sea of exercise questions and intensive political indoctrination, children lose not only the faculties to imagine and wonder, but also the courage to reason and think for themselves.

Regardless of the evils of test taking, the Gaokao system is more unfair than many people would like to admit. On the surface, the system sounds very fair because taking the same test and ranking by score seem fundamental to a good system. However, the divide between the countryside and the cities, as well as the gaps between elite urban schools and struggling urban schools, challenge fairness at the basic level. For instance, in 2010, I was told upon entering my high school, Beijing No.4 High School, which is also one of the most prestigious high schools in China, that the average investment in each student at my school was 13 times that in an average Beijing high school student. This number could easily hit over a hundred if we compared students in my high school with students in smaller cities and the countryside. As a result, elite schools like mine can send dozens of students to the top two schools, Peking University and Tsinghua University, as well as other top-tier schools around the country, while most other city schools can only manage to send quite a small percentage of students to top-tier universities. In the countryside, it is infinitely more difficult to achieve the same success matching that of the students in elite urban schools.

Added to the inequality of the distribution of resources is the unequal distribution of quota and the consequent varying degree of competition. For example, the top two schools in Beijing, Peking University and Tsinghua University, have more spots for students inside Beijing than students from other regions of the country. Beijing’s lesser number of students vies for relatively more spots while a significantly larger number of students from other regions competes for fewer spots. Similarly, the top two universities in Shanghai, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiaotong University, have favoritism towards Shanghai students. Because such unequal regional quota policies are prevalent, the levels of competition vary from region to region. The epicenters of test taking training are often found in smaller, more disadvantaged cities where competition is naturally the most cutthroat.

Pressing concerns about rote learning and inequality are problems that must be solved, or else the system will continue to waste human talent—the most precious treasure China possesses. Now the apologists, especially those who benefit greatly from the system, turn a blind eye to the discussion for possible improvements and argue instead that the current system is the best possible. Labeling it “best possible” makes a conversation for change difficult. Also contributing to the silence of elites is the fact that the act of criticizing the system that benefits you is considered an act of “ungratefulness;” but they should make the distinction between being thankful for the opportunities they received in the system and embracing the design of the system as a whole. Simple complaints and criticisms may not be productive, but neither are nonchalance and inaction. Now, what’s most worrisome is not the current state of affairs, but the reactionary logic and indifference towards necessary changes is almost as worrisome – if not more – than the actual flaws with the Gaokao.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yifu Dong ’17 is in Branford College. Contact him at