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Explainer: Understanding gaokao: China's unyielding quest for fairness in education

Source:Xinhua 2024-06-07

BEIJING, June 7 (Xinhua) -- On Friday morning, more than 13 million teenagers waved goodbye to their parents and entered exam rooms across China to sit the annual college entrance exam, known as the "gaokao."

The exam, which lasts two to four days depending on the students' chosen disciplines, is the most significant and rigorous test in the country. For many, this crucial moment may shape their academic and career trajectories for years to come.

The meritocratic system has proven effective in leveling the playing field in China. It allows students from all backgrounds to compete based solely on their abilities, free from the influence of wealth and connections.

By standardizing evaluation, China not only streamlines its university admission process, but also fosters transparency and accountability. The system is believed to be one of the most efficient ways to achieve fairness in education for a population of 1.4 billion.

The first unified matriculation exam was held in 1952. However, the gaokao was suspended for a decade during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, leading to a decline in educational quality and a shortage of talent.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping reinstated the gaokao system, transforming the lives of many through merit-based testing. This system also provided critical talent that was desperately needed for China's reform and opening up.

From 1977 to 2021, approximately 140 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities through the gaokao, playing a crucial role in the country's economic boom. On gaokao day each year, many of them reminisce about their experience of crossing the "single-log bridge" amidst fierce competition, viewing it as the beginning of their journey to a better life.

Over the decades, the gaokao system has become an effective social equalizer. It instills confidence in students, asserting that through hard work and dedication, they can carve out a life as successful as anyone else.

Given the importance of the exam, while most people prepare diligently, a handful may consider less honorable methods in an attempt to achieve high scores. Therefore, the preparation for the annual gaokao is extremely rigorous. The exam papers are classified as top state secrets and transported under police escort. Advanced technologies such as facial recognition, intelligent security doors and drones are used to thwart fraud attempts. All of these efforts are made to create fair competition.

Experts assert that fairness in exams extends beyond exam integrity, and involves developing assessments capable of recognizing each student's unique potential. This approach fosters individuality and nurtures the diverse talents of each student.

In reforms introduced in 2014, students were granted more autonomy in selecting their test subjects in Shanghai and its neighboring province of Zhejiang. The coverage of the reforms has kept expanding over the past decade. Seven more provincial regions joined this year, offering 12 combinations of test disciplines. Independent surveys conducted between 2019 and 2020 revealed that over 80 percent of the polled students approved of the reform.

Rote learning was once considered another sore spot of the exam, but recent exam designers have taken steps to address the issue. The official guide for organizing the 2024 gaokao, for example, stressed the importance of exploratory and creative thinking and called for more practical and open-ended questions.

In addition to ensuring fairness in test papers, China also addresses educational disparities arising from uneven resource distribution. It has introduced preferential schemes to support more students from rural and underdeveloped regions in gaining access to higher education institutions, benefiting nearly one million students from 2012 to 2022, according to the Ministry of Education.

As the country grows and its society becomes more diverse, the gaokao can hardly determine a student's future as it did in the past. Students can pursue their ambitions through a multitude of pathways, such as vocational education.

In a recent development, China elevated status of vocational education to be on par with general education. Notable efforts made in this area include extending bachelor's degree programs to the vocational education system.

Graduates from institutions like Shenzhen Polytechnic University are highly sought after in the job market. According to Xu Jianling, president of the university, 16 percent of graduates can secure job offers from top global enterprises and industry leaders such as Huawei, ZTE and BYD.

As the gross enrollment ratio for tertiary students climbed from 2.6 percent in 1977 to 60.2 percent in 2023, access to higher education has become increasingly widespread in China. To some extent, the gaokao is evolving beyond talent selection; it's now about individual growth.

Consequently, for many students in China, the exam has become a rite of passage, with the atmosphere outside the exam sites often filled with love, encouragement and good wishes from parents, rather than stress and pressure.

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