By Jing Xuanlin
New gaokao reform sparks outcry from Chinese parents, they hold the slogan “equality of education” in Nanjing, Jiangsu province.
Photo credits: sixthtone
NANJING, China — A new plan for the college examination and admission system (also known as “gaokao”) was announced by the State Council in September 2014, marking the most radical reform since the system’s revival after the Cultural Revolution. The plan aims to shake up the exam-oriented education system and reduce the overemphasis on grades and test scores in China’s college admissions process.
The initial pilot reform was launched in Shanghai and Zhejiang Province in September 2014. The pilot system allowed students to take the gaokao multiple times within their last two years of high school, replacing the previous system’s restriction that students may only test once over a three-day period during their final year of high school. A more comprehensive evaluation system was also established to incorporate additional merits into an applicant’s portfolio, such as awards and honors, evidence of good citizenship, morality and ethics, athletic performance, high school grades and teacher recommendation letters.
From the launch of these pilot programs to October 2018, 14 provinces successfully implemented the new reforms, while nine regions, including Sichuan, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, had to postpone development for one year due to a lack of educational resources. The difficulties in implementing these new reforms have truly reflected the severe longstanding educational gap between eastern urban areas and the less well-off central and western regions of the country.
The gaokao is modeled after the centuries-old imperial examination, or “keju” system. This civil service examination assessed the qualifications of ancient Chinese scholars to serve as officials. The gaokao represents a commitment to evaluating students based on their academic performance rather than their age, marital status or family background. In recent years, it has begun to gain international relevance, with up to a reported 1,000 institutions across 14 countries now accepting Chinese applicants’ gaokao scores as consideration for admission. With this international recognition, why would China want to pursue a new education reform?
This question can be approached from two angles: China’s consumption-oriented economic transformation and the country’s outflow of talent from middle- and upper-class families. On the one hand, the new program, meant to promote creativity among students and emulate America’s latest pedagogical practices, has been increasingly welcomed in China. On the other hand, an increasing number of children from China’s upper class prefer to study abroad to avert the immense pressure. It is estimated that more than 10 percent of students are enrolling in local non-gaokao programs, where they will be conferred with an international high school diploma to apply to universities abroad. In some cities, these programs are so popular that local governments have begun to set limits on their expansion. It is difficult to say if the new reforms are meant to benefit the majority of students rather than cater to wealthy families.
Two groups of children in particular, those from poor rural areas and those of migrant workers in large cities, are the most disadvantaged under the gaokao system. According to China’s household registration (or “hukou”) rules, many social benefits are tied to where a person’s hukou is registered. Regulations stipulate that only registered local residents are qualified to attend the locally-administered gaokao. However, few migrant workers hold urban hukou, let alone their children. At the end of high school, in order to take the gaokao, these children must return to where their hukou is registered, typically in poorer counties, where they have to adapt to new teaching materials and a new school environment and stay with relatives whom they perhaps have not seen in ages.
Unfortunately, these children go from being disadvantaged “migrant children” to disadvantaged “left-behind children.” Although a limited number of high schools have more flexible gaokao policies for students without a local hukou, their parents are required to go through tedious evaluations of their jobs, salaries and social insurance payments. Even now, there has been no coherent policy between the central and local governments and no unified standard among different local departments, so most children of migrant workers are excluded from the fairness of the gaokao.
Students use pieces of paper as makeshift dividers as they prepare for the gaokao,
Photo credits: Baidu
The reforms themselves have been met with constant complaints. Some parents and students claim the changes have kept them anxious throughout the past three years because they prolong the battle of preparation and testing. It has become clear that, although the examination system has changed, people’s recognition of the life-determining nature of the gaokao hasn’t adjusted accordingly. If people’s perceptions haven’t changed, how can we tell whether the reforms are successful or not？
In addition to the incessant anxiety of Chinese parents, the equality of the reforms has also been called into question. The original gaokao was praised by many as being a relatively corruption-free method of ensuring advancement for those who study hard. Corruption is a serious social and political problem, and parents are understandably worried that Chinese elites use their wealth and connections to ensure spots for their own children at top universities, similar to the college admissions scandal exposed in March in the United States. This begs the question: How can one compete with the “fu’erdai,” or “rich second generation,” without the gaokao?
According to Minister of Education Chen Baosheng, China will build a new comprehensive national college entrance examination system by 2020. For the remainder of 2019, China should ask itself how it can avoid corruption in the comprehensive evaluation system and how to improve enrollment among children of migrant workers and rural and poverty-stricken areas. Until more holistic practices can earn the public’s trust, the process of reforming this system will be slow, and the fundamental primacy of the gaokao in China’s education system will continue into the foreseeable future.
Jing Xuanlin is currently pursuing both an HNC certificate and a master’s degree focusing on international relations and world history from Nanjing University.