June 4, 2008
BEIJING, China‚ÄîFor China’s 31st annual National College Entrance Exam, which takes place on the first Thursday and Friday of June, at least 10 million Chinese high-school students have registered to sit the gaokao, as it is colloquially known. They are competing for an estimated 5.7 million university spots.
Kao means test, and gao, which means high, indicates the test’s perceived level of difficulty‚Äîand its ability to intimidate. It is China’s SAT‚Äîif the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one’s entire professional trajectory.
As economic development in China careens forward, interest in and the ability to pay for a college education swell. So does competition. Getting into a top-tier university such as Beijing’s Tsinghua or Peking University‚Äîthe former the alma mater of four of the nine members of China’s current Politburo, the latter China’s oldest university‚Äîmight lead to an interview with a major multinational or an elite political gig. At the least, a college education can circumvent a blue-collar job with a slow journey up a long, bureaucratic ladder. (Manual labor is generally reserved for poor farmers left with no recourse other than migrant work.)
Students become aware of the gaokao, the sole criterion for university admission, at an early age. Pressures and preparations begin accordingly. All schooling, especially middle- and high-school curricula, is oriented toward gaokao readiness. Students often joke that it takes 12 years to study for the test. Angel, a freshman studying at the China Foreign Affairs University, where I currently teach, remembers walking out after the first day of testing and hearing her best friend remark, “Well, there goes six years.”
Essentially, Chinese universities accept those students who are good at taking tests. This makes sense for an educational system historically oriented toward rote learning, where students are tested on how well they’ve memorized their teachers’ lectures. Mary, who is about to graduate from the Beijing Foreign Languages University, admitted she had many brilliant friends who simply didn’t test well. They retook the test after another year of studying (the gaokao is offered just once a year) and enrolled wherever their scores permitted.
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Manuela Zoninsein – Slate