"Fairness" and the gaokao: the invalid argument against reform


Almost all Chinese students agree: The Chinese education system isn’t conducive to enhancing students’ creative skills that are necessary to create dynamic economy.

The reason is because the education system is too focused on memorization and test taking. The most important of those tests is the gaokao, the one and only factor determining where students will attend college. After years of memorizing answers to pass tests, students are not well prepared when they get a job with a multinational company and they have to think of a solution on their own rather than filling in a bubble.

But if you ask students, there is one big reason to resist reforms on the gaokao.

"China needs to reform its education system, but there is no way," Yang said, a student in Dali, "because the population in China is too large."

"Although there are a lot of bad things about the gaokao, it does ensure fairness," a student named Zhao said. "There are so many people in China."

With so many people, how will colleges know who are the best students deserving to attend Beijing University?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that in a communist country with school uniforms, the people are focused on "fairness" first, not individualism or the economic development that comes from innovation. But the argument that the gaokao ensures fairness is invalid. The gaokao, by its very structure as a singular measure of student achievement, as well as uneven policies of administering the gaokao, is itself a barrier to equality-based notions of fairness, putting aside the fact that it also unfairly denies students the right to a broader education and denies the citizens at large the best possible education system for economic growth.

Having everyone take the same standardized test would seem to create an even playing field at first. After all, everyone is being evaluated on the same basis. But to have an even playing field, everyone should have the same possibility of success based on hard work, studying, and other factors that determine talent development. The test should impartially be able to determine who is the most talented and most deserving of attending the top tier colleges.

The gaokao is not impartial. In fact, it favors students who are good at memorizing and studying in a specific method over students who are more creative and rebel from a structured environment. Any test, by its very nature, favors these students who are well-suited to the test. In the United States, there are people who argue that the SAT is biased towards certain races or other classes of students. But because the college evaluation process is based on more than one factor, there are more opportunities for students to showcase their talents in multiple areas. Someone who doesn’t test well but who is a well-rounded student with many extracurricular activities and creative writing abilities thus will still be evaluated in part on their resume and essay.

If China’s education system succeeded at impartially ferreting out talent, China’s best and brightest should do well on the gaokao. One of China’s most successful authors, Han Han, dropped out of high school at age 18 after struggling in school. He has since wrote best-selling books like Three Doors (三重门) and 1988: I Want to Talk With the World (1988:我想和这个世界谈谈).

In Three Doors, he chronicled the failings of the Chinese education system and his own rebellion in school. The book was a hit with Chinese youth who felt the same way about the stifling education system.

Xu Mengnan, one of many students who was influenced by Han Han, intentionally failed the gaokao in protest and started advocating for reforms.

"Previously I was a hardworking student, and I did well in school. But when I was in high school, I read a book by Han Han. In the book, Han called the Chinese education system a failure, criticizing teachers, schools, mathematics class, enrollment system and students. After reading the book, I felt I had been cheated by the education system," he said in an article published at CRI.

In defense of the gaokao, the article says, "Chinese people often say, "The gaokao (the national college entrance exam) changes a student’s destiny" because it provides opportunity for students from less developed regions to enter prestigious universities and to get good jobs after graduation," but even that claim rests on shaky ground.

The gaokao does not treat students from less developed regions equally. In fact, it discriminates against students from poor regions. Students from prosperous big cities like Beijing and Shanghai have lower entrance standards to top colleges.

"Beijing University is called ‘Beijing People University,’" Frank Chen, a Shanghai resident said, "because they enroll more local freshman than students from small cities."

"Mr. Yu [Minhong] said, the whole country is concerned that currently the gaokao admissions policy is unfair, mainly in two points," an’ target=_blank>an article in iFeng news on March 8 said. "The first point is that there are major discrepancies between the acceptance rate of students from different provinces and cities to the top national universities. The second point is that the proportion of top national university resources allocated between city and rural areas is extremely out of balance. The imbalance between education resources in the city and countryside, and between different provinces and cities, has created an unequal situation for the gao kao and college entrance opportunities."

People who try to move to different provinces to take the gaokao have become known as "gaokao immigrants," but they are usually stopped by hu kou regulations.

Thus, students in less-developed regions are forced to study harder. Students in Dali attend school from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on weekdays and a few hours a day on weekends.

"Beijing and Shanghai education is comparatively relaxed," said Fancy, a Shanghainese college student. "In Shanghai, I would attend high school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. In the poor areas, students work harder."

Some universities and local governments are starting to experiment with reforms, but it’s a slow process. Residents of big cities want to protect their children’s gaokao advantages. Teachers get bonuses for having their students attend better universities, so they are invested in using teaching styles that prepare students for the tests. Parents and students themselves, of course, want to do well on the test.

"If [my son] writes whatever he wants in an essay, he will get a bad grade, because the teachers do not like students to write whatever they want," Chen said.

"Everyone knows it’s a problem. 95% of the people realize it, but there’s nothing that can be done. I want him to go to a good college. Reform can only come from people at the top making pushes."

  1. People against standardized testing are usually soft headed westerners who care more about “feelings” than results anyway

    The gaokao’s purpose is to identify the most elite students, not to coddle all the failures and make kids feel good about themselves

    It’s not perfect, but it’s sure better than nothing.

    1. Alternatively, it identifies the most able to churn out answers, who promptly slack off in college and do nothing with their lives anyway.

  2. I have just finished two graduate degrees in the west, and have helped design and run university courses.

    Many complaints about standardized testing are not due to soft-headedness. The very best students at standardized testing do well at first in university, but then start to fall back towards the end. Very few of them are suited for research and creating new knowledge. Schools that ‘teach to the test’ tend to put out less capable students by test score, since the students to not seem to always remember what was on the test afterwards or learn many skills outside of it. Good universities try to keep a database of at least the local schools and adjust scores accordingly.

    That said, standardized testing is very useful. The problem is usually the cutoff rate for admission – every test I’ve seen has a good deal of difficulty in ranking the top 20%, and is almost random in ranking the top 10%, especially if the average grade is above 80%. If you accept the top 20%, there is usually no problem, but if your cutoff is the top 5% or 1%, you’ll end up admitting only the rote-memorizers and excluding those that would create world class scientific research, new technologies, and world changing ideas.

  3. At least in China those who really study hard and do well in exam will get a place in university. In Malaysia what really matters is your race and religion ie Malay or Muslims. Those belongs to the right race and religion will find it easier to enter university and get study loans/scholarships even when they are mediocre in the first place. As a result Malaysia has produced a large numbers of unemployable graduates some 80 thousands and growing. Many bright local born Chinese and Indian students had been denied places in local Universities. If their parents could afford it they will go to Singapore or elsewhere.

    1. You actually think China is a meritocracy?! Oh hahahaha. Let’s not forget that Chinese schools have race-based quotas too, so being Muslim is automatically a ticket to the top school! (Unless there are too many of you. Then you just can’t get in at all.)

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