Gaokao reforms clash with reality 高考改革与现实冲击

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.

2014年9月,中国国务院颁布了一项新的高考改革方案,这是自文化大革命后恢复高考以来中国教育领域最为激进的一次改革。该方案旨在整顿国家应试教育系统,减少全民对分数的过渡狂热,改变大学录取中的唯分数论。

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.

同年,上海和浙江启动了试点改革,规定学生可以在高中最后两年内多次参加高考,此前,考生只能在高三参加为期三天的一次性考试。此外,这项改革还为考生建立了一份综合素质评价单,包括获奖情况、思想品德、身体素质、学业成绩以及教师推荐信。

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.

从试点改革启动到2018年10月,全国共14个省份成功实施了新高考改革,而相对缺乏教育资源的9个地区,包括西藏、内蒙古、四川在内,则宣布将推迟一年进行改革。这正是中国教育资源失衡的真实写照,这种困境在东部城市和中西部欠发达地区中最为突出。

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?

现行的高考制度可以追溯至百年前的科举制度——一种古代学者步入仕途的主要考核方式。高考是一种基于学业成绩的录取承诺,与年龄,婚否以及家庭背景无关。近年来,高考在国际上获得了更多认可,据报道,超过1000个来自14个不同国家的教育机构将高考分数作为入学许可条件之一。那么,在获得国际认可度之后,中国为何还要继续改革原有的高考制度呢?

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.

这一问题可以从两个角度分析:中国消费导向的经济转型和中产阶级人才的外流。一方面,旨在提高学生创造力,模仿美国最新教学实践的项目在中国愈发流行;另一方面,为了逃避巨大的高考压力,越来越多的中上层家庭选择让子女出国留学。据统计,超过10%的学生注册了本地的非高考项目,即他们将以国际高中文凭毕业,为申请外国大学提前做好准备。此类项目在一些大城市颇受欢迎,以至于当地政府不得不采取措施限制其扩张。因此,我们很难说新高考改革是为了造福大多数考生,而不是迎合富裕家庭的期望。

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.

在高考制度实施过程中,贫困地区学生和外出务工子女两大群体一直处于劣势。根据中国户籍制度的相关规定,许多社会福利都和户口所在地挂钩。就高考而言,只有拥有本地户口的学生才能在当地参加高考。但是农民工几乎不可能拥有城市户口,更不用说其子女。因此,这些随迁子女不得不在最后一年返回户籍所在地,在穷乡僻壤参加高考,重新适应新的教材和学习环境,也不得不和一些几乎素未蒙面的亲戚一起生活。

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.

不幸的是,他们刚跳出“随迁子女”这一弱势群体,又被迫卷入另一个“留守儿童”的弱势群体。尽管有少数学校对那些没有本地户口的学生提供了较为灵活的报考条件,但其家长必须通过一系列有关工作、薪资以及参保情况的评价体系。至今,不仅中央和地方缺乏连贯一致的执行政策,地方不同政府部门间也未能达成统一标准。因此,大多数随迁子女都被排除在高考公平性之外。

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?

新高考改革本身也招致不少批评。一些学生和家长表示,新高考让他们陷入整整三年的焦虑,因为改革延长了备考时间,增添了考试次数。这说明虽然高考制度发生了变化,但人们对于“一考定终身”的心理认知并未有相应调整。如果人们的认知并未得到改变,如何判断这场改革是否成功呢?

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?

除了父母的反复焦虑外,改革的公平性也遭到质疑。高考原本一直被认为是相对公正廉洁的考核方式,基本可以保证那些努力学习的人最终得到录取。但是,腐败是一个严重的社会和政治问题,家长们担心中国的精英阶层会利用其财富和人脉,为自家孩子入学顶尖高校“走后门”。3月12日美国历史上最大规模的入学作弊丑闻曝光就证实了这种担忧。有人问:如果没有高考,你拿什么和富二代竞争呢?

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.

中国教育部部长陈宝生表示,中国将于2020年全面建成新高考制度。在剩余的一年时间里,中国教育者应扪心自问,如何在综合评价体系中规避腐败,如何解决外出务工子女和贫困地区学生的入学问题。在全面实践赢得公众信任之前,高考制度的改革进程将十分缓慢。在可预见的未来,高考在中国教育体系的根本地位仍不可撼动。

Jing Xuanlin is currently pursuing both an HNC certificate and a master’s degree focusing on international relations and world history from Nanjing University.