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Abstract

China has an education system of hundreds of millions of students, notable regional and economic differences, and cultural factors that greatly influence the social roles of teacher and student, and the way society views education. All these have shaped a unique education system in which written examinations played a vital role. Based on a review of the current literature on this topic and interviews with students of Portuguese at Sun-Yat Sen University in Guandong Province, this study addresses the influence of gaokao (National College Entrance Examination) on the profile of Chinese students and aims to contribute to bring to light this determinant feature of the Chinese education system. The Chinese education system consists of a succession of exams, the best known of which is gaokao. The demands of gaokao have a huge influence on the social and academic profile of Chinese college students and affect the way they face the school and university. In the short term it seems challenging to change the burden of gaokao in Chinese schooling due to population density, teaching methods and socio-cultural issues.
A revista Diadorim uliza uma Licença Creave Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional (CC-BY-NC).
Diadorim, Rio de Janeiro, vol. 21, Especial, p. 168-185, 2019.
Received on: July 26th, 2019 | Accepted on: October 7th, 2019
https://doi.org/10.35520/diadorim.2019.v21nEspa27418
GAOKAO: FAR MORE THAN AN EXAM
GAOKAO: MUITO MAIS DO QUE UM EXAME
Manuel Duarte João Pires1
ABSTRACT
China has an education system of hundreds of millions of students, notable regional and economic
dierences, and cultural factors that greatly inuence the social roles of teacher and student,
and the way society views education. All these have shaped a unique education system in which
written examinations played a vital role. Based on a review of the current literature on this topic
and interviews with students of Portuguese at Sun-Yat Sen University in Guandong Province,
this study addresses the inuence of gaokao (National College Entrance Examination) on the
prole of Chinese students and aims to contribute to bring to light this determinant feature of
the Chinese education system. The Chinese education system consists of a succession of exams,
the best known of which is gaokao. The demands of gaokao have a huge inuence on the social
and academic prole of Chinese college students and aect the way they face the school and
university. In the short term it seems challenging to change the burden of gaokao in Chinese
schooling due to population density, teaching methods and socio-cultural issues.
KEYWORDS: China; Chinese students; National College Entrance Examination (gaokao);
Portuguese as a Foreign Language.
RESUMO
A China possui um sistema de educação composto por dezenas de milhões de estudantes, por
marcadas assimetrias regionais e econômicas e por questões culturais que inuenciam muito
os papéis sociais do professor e do aluno e no modo como a sociedade encara a educação.
Todas essas características reetem na existência de um sistema de avaliação pouco exível
no qual os exames escritos assumem uma enorme importância. Com base na revisão da
1 B.A. and M.A. in “Portuguese Language and Culture” from Faculty of Humanities of University
of Lisbon (Portugal). Portuguese Lecturer at Sun-yat Sen University (Guangzhou, China) since 2012.
PhD Student in “Portuguese Literary and Intercultural Studies” at University of Macau (Macau, China).
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literatura atual sobre esse tema e em entrevistas aos estudantes de Português da Universidade de
Sun-Yat Sen, situada na província de Cantão, este estudo aborda a inuência do gaokao no
perl dos estudantes chineses e pretende contribuir para trazer à luz esta particularidade
incontornável do sistema de educação chinês. O sistema de educação chinês é constituído por
uma sucessão de exames, cujo mais conhecido é o gaokao. As exigências do gaokao têm uma
inuência enorme no perl social e acadêmico dos estudantes universitários e moldam a forma
de os alunos chineses encararem a escola e a universidade. A curto prazo, parece difícil mudar
o peso do gaokao na escolaridade chinesa devido a questões relacionadas com a densidade
populacional, com os métodos de ensino e com os traços socioculturais.
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: China; estudantes chineses; exame nacional de acesso à universidade
(gaokao); Português Língua Estrangeira.
Introduction
One key element of Chinese education system which greatly restricts the speed with
which a more communicative language-teaching method is implemented in the country is the
signicance attached to exams (JIN; CORTAZZI 1997; 2006; WANG; HUANG; SCHNELL,
2013; ZHANG; LI; WANG 2013; CHEN, 2016). The most crucial one among these exams,
beyond dispute, comes as gaokao, the National College Entrance Examination, which is
probably one of the most dicult exams all over the world. What makes it far more than an
exam is its role as an origin of stress as well as an absolutely decisive turning point in young
Chinese students’ life (JIN; CORTAZZI, 2006; KAI, 2012; WANG; HUANG; SCHNELL,
2013; TSEGAY; ASHRAF, 2016; HEGER, 2017).
After gaokao was restored in 1977 as one outcome of educational reform as the
government had recognized how important higher education means to modernization of the
country (TSEGAY; ASHRAF, 2016), citizens regained the opportunity to elevate their social
status through education, which in turn contributed to social and economic development
(HEGER, 2017).
According to Tsegay e Ashraf (2016), every year millions of high school students will
attend this exam that lasts for two days. Those with higher marks will gain the access to better
universities, approach better jobs and eventually become those successive personages amid the
prosperity of Chinese economy. Yet it is considered to be the root of intensive pressure since the
future of candidates is indelibly linked with their performance in this exam.
A study conducted by Wang, Huang e Schnell (2013) about the risks of stress associated
with this exam reveals that many secondary schools in China are assessed by the result of gaokao.
Besides, how teachers are rewarded depends on the marks of students they teach. Consequently,
many people refer to this system as the culprit of current conservative educational practices for
apart from inducing excessive level of pressure and competition, it literally turns students into
“test machines” with their creativity development limited.
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
In a study of Zhao, Selman e Haste (2015), where they propose a program to curb
academic stress in China, it is referred that while people in the United States talk about American
students’ mediocre performance among international rankings, in China what is discussed by
the authority are the causes and preventions of the stress which students, families and schools
suer, especially that provoked by National College Entrance Examination. Chinese educators
and students are confronted with high levels of stress related to an exam-oriented education
system, which, aecting psychological, social, moral and civic development of Chinese young
people while at school, has become a huge social problem. Zhao, Selmon e Haste also arm
that numerous studies has proved a higher risk of suicidal mentality as well as attempts among
Chinese adolescents. The negative impact that academic stress brings about is not merely
limited in individual psychological health, but also extends to students’ social relationship with
their colleagues and their attitudes towards the whole society. As a result of intense competition,
sentiment including jealous, distrust and animosity grows among peers. One’s intimate friends
can be frequently regarded at the same time as their rivals or enemies in academic competition.
These authors argue that these problems derive from various political and socio-cultural factors.
First and foremost, due to apprehension about children’s future and traditional culture which
emphasizes academic record, Chinese parents always hold a resistant attitude towards new
potential policies about college entrance. What’s more, cultural factors make it habitual for
individuals to be judged or compared with others in from daily life to personnel-recruitment
market, while an impressive degree is exactly a symbol of distinction. Finally, the rigorously
applied one-child policy since 1979 have made many youngsters only-children who are
expected to shoulder the responsibility alone for attending to their parents when they become
senior. Because of these reasons, they defend that it is dicult to change this college entrance
system in depth insofar as China is ghting with an education system still highly vulnerable
to institutional corruption. Hence gaokao is considered by the majority of Chinese to be a
selection mechanism relatively fair and objective.
In conclusion, using gaokao as the only criteria on admission to university, the education
system of China has continued to dene academic success according to external judgement,
which, with focus on test results, imposes a high level of stress (on schools, parents and students)
and ends up with producing students with low self-condence and creativity. Under this system,
passing gaokao and enter a great faculty is compared to a “paved road, not the steep, bumpy and
uncertain one—if there even is a bumpy one rather than a dead end—that awaits those who fail
to slay the Gaokao” (ZHAO; SELMON; HASTE, 2016, p. 7).
Implications of Gaokao in chinese society
In a research to explore how Chinese students relate gaokao with the access to university,
Heger (2017, p. 120) mentions that students’ account conveys a clear message that eort to
enter university is a very glorious topic in their mind. From the moment they pass the exam on,
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this experience will keep being recalled in great detail. This can match my own experience in
my class when sometimes hearing my students say “Today is the rst or second anniversary of
my gaokao”, telling how alive is that experience in their minds.
Beside this argument, this same author tells that the entrance to university is described in
dierent ways as a turning point in students’ life. Being admitted to university is something that
someone can take substantial pride in since many others can not manage to do so. With their
whole adolescence immersed in pressure and competition, young people associate studying
in university with a new type of liberty regardless of some requirements on their courses. The
same notion of liberty is also cited by Jin e Cortazzi (1997) in a study about the communicative
approach in foreign language teaching China. Involving students from Chinese universities,
it reveals that after going through the “hell of exams” and erce competition, students feel
that university provides them with more tranquility and leisure compared with their former
academic journey. In other words, in spite of all the new challenges, life in university is seen as
a period where there exists less pressure than before, especially in contrast with their past years
in high school where the pressure and competition of going to university reach the peak.
Some of my students as well as other friends not in academic institutions share with me
their similar experience of the nal months approaching their gaokao from time to time. Stories
are repeatedly told that they did not leave their senior secondary school for months to work
diligently; slept little over this period; studied hard till mid-night on their beds with light of
cellphone on when light of dormitory had been turned o after a day lled by classes (in some
cases holding cellphone is prohibited, too); seldom contacted their families and friends, doing
nothing anything but study for months. For those who come from a distinctive educational
culture, it could be dicult to understand the extent of hard-work that Chinese students
demonstrate to succeed in this exam.
Some of this kind of eort are reported by Larmer (2015) in The Washington Post in an
article describing days at a high school in Shanghai anteceding gaokao. He interviews some
students who share their sacrice in this phase. One of them claims that in the nal three
years, they have classes from 6 a.m. to 20 p.m. everyday including weekends and that he did
not do anything apart from studying. He also tells that if all the test sheets over three years
are collected, they can “wrap all the way around the world” (LARMER, 2015, p. 13). Other
students compare the memorization of materials during preparation for gaokao to the trainings
for the Olympic Games “You have to keep up the momentum. Skip a day or two, and you can
get o form” (LARMER, 2015, p. 15) The report indicates that cases of suicide tend to increase
when the exam is close and a viral photo online taken by a student years before this report is
put to exemplify, a scene of a classroom full of students having intravenous drips which seem
to be whey to oer them strength to work hard. Larmer also points out other problems such as
prohibition of some school on using telephones or computers and ban on puppy love. Namely,
it is forbidden or opposed to date someone in high schools. Some students constantly talk about
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
this, recounting that being found dating will lead to students’ parents called by the director at
school and suspension or even expulsion in case of recurrence.
Besides, the report written by Larmer discuss the burden of some students from the
periphery of Shanghai and struggle of their parents, those who mainly work in agriculture or
civil construction. They pump all their earnings into their children’s education for the concern
that their young generation might eventually end up with the same profession as themselves
without achieving a positive result in gaokao. In these cases, it is evident that all the sacrice
and endeavor made by the young people and their relatives are to help outshine other millions
of candidates.
According to Heger (2017), among all the important challenges during the race towards
higher education, what comes rst is zhongkao, the middle or intermediate exam to select
students into three-year high school before gaokao. This exam decides whether a student is
able to acquire admission to regular high school, where education is oriented toward gaokao, or
just vocational high school, a stigmatized option whose sole advantage is the access permitted
directly to the job market, although limited only in occupations considered to be inferior. In
fact, only half of teenagers in China are able to obtain seats in high school.
As is stated by Wang, Huang e Schnell (2013) since the second that students step into
high schools for their last three years followed by university, they have been connected with
education aimed at gaokao, which summarizes their former academic journey by only one
evaluation event. Regarding the entry to higher education, those scholars make a comparison
between China and the United States where multiple criteria are taken into consideration
including aptitude tests, the average of grades over high schools, extracurricular activities and
life experiences.
Through this comparison it is possible to understand how requirements on chance of
higher education can play such a signicant role in not only teenagers’ school life but also
their personal development and social skills. On the one hand, for students, a system with more
than scores of tests taken into account asks for dierent types of capabilities besides learning
in classroom, which help to promote their participation in community and get accustomed to
other social roles exibly aside from students. On the other hand, a system that loads all the
pressure of going to university on only one exam severely aggregates individuals’ struggle and
competition, only conning teenagers’ life to school.
The reason why gaokao is a source of competition and stress lies not only in the fact that
it roughly judges students’ eort within just a few hours, but the whole atmosphere of intensive
studying and pressure from society and family to be successful.
According to Heger (2017) this exam denes far more than an avenue to university itself.
On top of that, a prestiged university will enhance the possibility of obtaining a pleasing job,
too. Another factor of stress concerning gaokao is the inconsistency between the meritocracy
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represented theoretically by the exam and the actual inequality that shows when it is carried out.
Since the access to university and respective degrees are based purely on results of an exam,
gaokao owns a meritocratic connotation. Nevertheless, in practice, the system is unequal to
a large extent out of dierent regional requirements on access to university. The Ministry of
Education of the PRC established a quota system which assigns every province the number of
students that an university can enroll. The Ministry also determinates the lowest mark a student
must achieve in dierent provinces to go to a certain university. In provinces more prosperous,
the minimum passing score to enjoy higher education is less demanding. Given that better high
schools are located always in provinces also with high-quality universities, local teenagers
has less diculty to be accepted by local universities. These regional and social-economic
imbalance are hence “perpetuated throughout all levels of education” (HEGER, 2017, p. 116).
Albeit the massication of higher education across China, the gap to study at universities
among dierent areas has long been widening due to the system of regional quotas In a study
on problems of gaokao in China, Liu (2016) tells that the system of regional quotas consists in
a series of policies stipulating quotas for every province. Under this system, every university
has a xed number of students that it can accept in dierent provinces, with a larger percentage
from the province where that university is situated in. Even though there have been attempts
to guarantee social and educational equality, it is frequently criticized for its inherent inequity.
In contrast to other regions, the situation seems more unfavorable for students from central
and western China, “especially for those provinces with over 500,000 applicants” (LIU, 2016,
p. 11). C. Liu explains, emphasizing that there are 26 higher education institutions in Beijing
and 10 in Shanghai. Together, they are more than the total of the central and western regions
of China. Quite dierent from Beijing and Shanghai, each of most underdeveloped provinces
only has one university counted as high-level in China. As the regional quotas are distributed
in accordance with geographical distribution of higher education institutions, students resident
in major urban centers own more convenience in terms of being accepted by a university more
prominent. For instance, the opportunity to enter Peking University for candidates taking
gaokao in Beijing is “is 31 times of that for students in Henan” (LIU, 2016, p. 11).
With regard to this aspect, a study of Liu (2013) about the meritocracy of gaokao indicates
an association between educational conditions provided by parents and the socio-demography
of families, which greatly aects the result of gaokao. The author then comes to a conclusion
that socio-demographic factors seem to play a more considerable role than socio-economic
statue when it comes to opportunities of higher education (LIU, 2013).
Some parents with better economic conditions, to overcome all the obstacles and secure
the social position of their family through higher education of their children, will try to avoid
gaokao by sending their children abroad to attend foreign universities (JIN; CORTAZZI,
2006), while others opt for buy houses in provinces, which guarantees their children more
advantages to be admitted by universities. Families who change their place of residence in
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
order to win the opportunity for better universities like this are called “migrants of gaokao
(HEGER, 2017, p. 127).
Kan (2013) also touch this issue in his study about the challenges faced by the current
young generation in China when discussing an education system that “systematically
reproduces disparity between generations” (p. 67). She is sure that in contemporary China, the
socio-economic status and registered permanent residence (hukou) of a family to which the
underage pertain is decisive for their access to better education so long as schools in rural
provinces maintain underfunded. In rural areas, the lack of high-quality education make young
people there lag far behind urban students, and there are still few mechanisms to rectify such
disadvantages. As Kan (2013) stated, in addition to these disadvantages, those better universities
are known to show preference for local students, accepting local urban candidates with much
lower scores at the sacrice of those scored higher but from countryside. Like so, local students
who have already enjoyed better teaching resources are expected to face challenges in university
better and hence are further favored by top universities.
Kan (2013) points out that another great conict tied to regional dierences in Chinese
education is relevant to migrants who move from rural areas to major cities in pursuit of
plentiful job opportunities and better life conditions. However, those from other places always
have restrictions when it comes to permissions and social welfare. In this way, achieving access
to decent education is a rather tough task for children whose parents are these migrant workers.
Neither these children have local hukou, nor are they included in the government budget for
public education. On this account urban schools continue imposing heavy nancial burden on
migrant parents through temporary accommodation for students, compensation payment and
taxes of school selection. Even with some measures to remove these loads and exempt taxes,
migrant parents who normally only have inferior jobs with lower salary have to keep dealing
with exorbitant expenses compared with families with local hukou. Many children of migrant
workers have no choice but to stay in their place of birth, distant from their parents, and when
they try to accompany their parents, usually for chance of higher education they are forced to
return to their original province since not allowed to attend local gaokao without hukou. For
some of these teenagers, this not only means separation from parents and adaptation to a new
environment on their own, but also retrogression to schools with worse teaching resources. Some
teenagers simply choose to leave o their study, others turn to polytechnics and professional
schools run by local governments or private companies, while their peers with urban hukou step
into prestige universities with abundant subsidies and greater convenience rendered.
The social position of parents has an apparent preponderance during race of gaokao and
admission to universities. Outstanding academic performance can be attributed to parents who
manage to guarantee their children success in exams (BIGGS, 1998; LIU, 2016; KAI, 2012;
LIU, 2016; YU, 2017), dedicating all their energy and income into one objective. In some cases
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mothers will resign to entirely support their children during the phase while those teenagers are
absorbed in preparation for gaokao.
However, support like this might also bring about a contrary eect with parents pushing
youngsters too hard and “making decisions on behalf of their children” rather than guiding them
to face their own paths in life (HEGER, 2017, p. 123). Heger gives an example of a student
participating in his research whose major was decided not to her delight but by her parents.
Throughout my experience in Sun Yat-Sen University, I have noticed that it is common
for students to follow the blueprint of their parents. When asked about why they chose the
current major, students usually start with “because my parents think...”. This can be extended
from the general major to the motivation to learn Portuguese or their participation in exchange
programs including choices of countries (Brazil or Portugal), cities and universities. Accustomed
to respond with opinions of their parents, sometimes they are not even sure what is they own
thought and decisions. This is recurrently happening given that Chinese parents are authoritative
during the decision-making process of their children (HEGER, 2017).
As demonstrated by a research conducted by Liu (2016) about international mobility of
Chinese students, the momentousness that families attach to children’s scholastic triumph is
intimately related to some particularities intrinsic in Chinese culture, specically, the culture
of giving priority to education of juniors and of thrift. Liu (2016) reckons that in China the
values of putting education of children in the rst place makes Chinese parents try their utmost
to nd the best educational options for their children. In parallel, the traditional virtue of thrift
contributes to accumulation and allocation of resources for education. Accordingly, they seek
to send their children to the best public schools, which stimulate the rising of real estate prices
surrounding those schools. W. Liu argues that if parents do not buy a house at the catchment
area, they have to pay for high taxes for an eligible school, albeit with their residence far from
the district of the school. In the matter of universities, parents prefer those with more reputation,
especially in Beijing or Shanghai. Providing there is enough nancial capability, a common
practice is to send their ospring to study abroad, “preferably to the US”, because “Higher
education abroad is generally understood as better” than in China (LIU, 2016, p. 56). Such
sacrice that parents are willing to make as well as pressure they impose on their children over
their school days are summarized by Liu as follow:
Chinese parents might be unique in the extent of the sacrices they are willing
to make so that their children can get the best education possible, irrespective
of the return. The Chinese education-rst culture is partly rooted in a highly
competitive social structure, the result of a large population and scarce
educational resources. Chinese parents tend to push their children as hard as
they can, so that they can exhaust their intellectual potential in their schooling.
(LIU, 2016, p. 54).
Salili (1996) also connects the Chinese values of collectivism with academic performance
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
of Chinese students whose personal achievement is also viewed as honor of their families,
inuencing their social life and their families’ satisfaction. Under this mode, students’ endeavor,
not just limited to their individual ability, is counted in Chinese culture as a “key to academic
success” (SALILI, 1996, p. 102). These characteristics are allied to the absence of parents’
praise and their elevated expectation, generating strong incentives for students to always do
better at school but meanwhile exerting huge pressure. Consequently, the purposes of intense
eort that students make to succeed are not only to be academically accomplished but to obtain
recognition from their parents and hence the glory of their families at a social level. The author
further points out that although under pressure, what happens in such public education might
not be expedient in development of “creative or critical thinking” of Chinese students (SALILI,
1996, p. 102).
In respect of the role of teachers and its impact on students’ grade in gaokao, according
to teachers will take strategies such as repetition of exams taken in previous years, homework
and in-class exercises to guide their students while checking whether students are well-prepared
for gaokao. Teachers have to carefully come up with similar test questions and set numerous
tests to evaluate students’ progress. The authors refer that as far as students are concerned,
a teacher’s encouragement also profoundly aect their result of gaokao. Students stress that
one thing that helps them stay motivated is inspiration and condence delivered by teachers.
Mainly for those whose parents are distant from them, teachers become their “main source
of motivation” (TSEGAY; ASHRAF, 2016, p. 73). This phenomenon can also be interpreted
from Chinese educational culture where a teacher is usually regarded as a paternal gure (JIN;
CORTAZZI, 1998, 2006; RAO, 2002; ZHANG; LI; WANG, 2013). Based on this denition
of teachers, Tsegay e Ashraf (2016, p. 74) add that teacher also serve as a model for students
to achieve impressive marks in gaokao – a model not only entrusted with the mission to teach
and inspect students, but also to convey support, motivation and advice to accompany students
to go through this exigent period of life. Nonetheless, it is also possible to hear students admit
that regardless of all the encouragement, severity and sometimes punishment also come from
teachers (WANG; HUANG; SCHNELL, 2013; LARMER, 2015).
The problem of gaokao goes beyond the question of passing it or not. Achieving higher
marks means to be ranked among the tops and therefore to enter better universities. For this
reason, the exam should be “dicult enough to distinguish the excellent students” (GUO et al.,
2017, p. 111). In most provinces, gaokao has a “3+X” structure, namely three basic subjects
(Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language, normally English) plus a subject (X) chosen by
students themselves on elds they study. The total mark is 750 with every basic subjects of 150
and the subject “X” of 300 (TSEGAY; ASHRAF, 2016, p. 68).
For Heger the objective of students is to pass the exam with a best potential score to be
accepted by more reputable universities. For some students, failing to go to an elite university
involves disillusion and even loss of face, so some of them will take a risk. For example,
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sometimes they will apply for a less popular major to increase the possibility of entering a
prestige university then endeavor to change their majors after the rst year. This means to
study a major they are not interested in for a year but ght to stay among the best 10% of
students, who are given the qualication to change major. After this they also have to pass an
internal exam of admission to the new major applied for. Any failure in the processes mentioned
above will end up with being “imprisoned” in the original major for four years. (HEGER,
2017). Moreover, the desire for a diploma awarded by a prestige university becomes even
stronger given than upon graduating young people have to face current tough employment
situation — where many of them might only nd low-skilled jobs. These problems are touched
in dozens of recent researches (KAN, 2013; POSTIGLIONE, 2014; HEGER, 2017; YU, 2017).
In accordance with a study of Postiglione (2014) about reforms of gaokao, the fact
that many post-graduates might only nd a job far below expectation or demanding less
professional competence than cultivated is quite disturbing. As Postiglione nds out, in rural
district families generally make greater sacrice to pay for youngsters, only to perplexedly
nd that when a student who passes the grueling national examination and attends university,
their children cannot nd a good job. This risk of instability concerning personal career create
even more anxiety about access to universities. In this sense, the gaokao is also a “barometer of
the challenges facing China’s economic rise and its breakneck expansion of higher education”
(POSTIGLIONE, 2014, p. 17).
About the reforms of gaokao, Postiglione (2014) tells that Chinese government intends
to divide this system into two exams, one for access to professional-technical education to
satisfy growing demand for workforce with qualied technical skills and another for traditional
academic areas. However, this is not thought highly of given the inferior social status represented
by the former degree, which is normally considered to lead to a less promising future. Moreover,
this divided system might even deepen the educational and cultural gap between areas and
social classes with dierent economic conditions.
Regarding the way students cope with the exam, Heger’s (2017) study revealed that
students are aware of all the problems about system of gaokao but simply think it as a less
serious and something that all have to accept and get used to, which kind of suggest the logic of
a Portuguese idiom “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Students often mentioned their origins
to illustrate the obstacles and the chances they had to get a place in higher education, however,
no one has addressed these issues as unfair or unequal, but as a fait accompli which they have
to deal with. In their point of view it is the reality that everyone must try to confront with rather
than protest against. The students adapt themselves to the present situation, doing their best
and devising their own strategies to tackle this challenge (HEGER, 2017). To comprehend this
attitude, the demographic and social conditions of China must be taken into account: students
ght with all their strength for a position in higher education, which promises them brilliant
work prospects and, in many cases, social mobility. Gaokao, in this way, is thought to be
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
comparatively proper for current national conditions considering that the results of the exam
remain insusceptible to corruption. For another, its eciency also get widely acknowledged
since millions of candidates get selected by just one event. All these explain why “calls to
abolish or fundamentally reform the system have failed so far” (HEGER, 2017, p. 116) for all
the attempted measures.
For all the setbacks, the way that individuals try to overcome the intrinsic collective
diculties in their pursuit to higher education presents a reason for which, surprisingly, “never
has been a collective eort spanning all social strata to change the status quo”, even though
“reports regarding the problems and inequalities in college admission appear in media every
year” (HEGER, 2017, p. 128).
By analyzing researches on this topic it is possible to spot two pertinent questions on
gaokao. The rst one is linked with what passing or failing the exam actually indicates. Between
these two circumstances exists a sort of chasm, showing two disparate world, which is even
more noticeable for the young generation from peripheral provinces or underprivileged classes.
Not passing the exam seems to unavoidably reduce career opportunities and send them to a less
optimistic future; while being able to stand out in the exam means not only better jobs, but also
social mobility for those with an unsatisfactory background. The other question is the prevalent
idea that as a rigid system sometimes unfair, gaokao is an inevitability that has no alternative
with the same degree of eciency and public acceptance.
This part of the article aims at giving an outlook of particularities of Chinese education
system, which, along with its eects are mostly partial or totally unknown to Western countries.
It results in personal, family and social competition yet the pursuit of a pleasing result of the exam
might actually pose great diculty to widely implement communicative methods in teachin-
g-learning process. We must not forget that practically the whole schooling is aected by this
exam. We can say that gaokao is a product peculiar to Chinese society with increasing students
at all levels of education, regional, social and economic asymmetries as well as representative
cultural traditions. However it is meanwhile an institution reinforcing these features. This forms
a cycle seemingly without feasible solution so that every family and student make all eorts to
reach a place in a good university.
To fully understand the signicance of gaokao to Chinese society and its impact on
personal and academic experience of undergraduates is fundamental for foreign teachers who
teach Chinese. Knowledge about gaokao helps to perceive what their students have (or have
not) gone through before university as well as the way students embrace their future. When
discussing this topic, my students always told me that it is hard to explain all this to a foreigner:
the eorts, the pressure, and the sacrice that gaokao represents. I believe it will be dicult
to describe these feelings in words, while what is even harder is to depict the context entailing
gaokao to someone who comes from another educational and socio-cultural background
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Same youth as others’, but with Gaokao as a principal task
After reviewing the literature about gaokao, I nd it essential to discuss what I have gured
out about the inuence of this exam on Chinese education system and adolescents’ life with
some students at Sun Yat-Sen University. The purpose is to discuss how those students feel about
the conclusions collated. Although having exchanged my opinions with my students in class
occasionally, I decided to gather students native in Canton to confront the main ideas presented
by those literature. To this end, I invited ve seniors who major in English with Portuguese as
their minor. The data used for this study was acquired by means of semi-structured, qualitative
interviews conducted with ve undergraduate students from SYSU in Zhuhai, Guangdong
Province in the fall of 2018. A round table was provided so that students can openly conveyed
their viewpoints on topics including the pressure to prepare for the exam, the roles of parents
and teachers, their relationship with classmates, and lastly, dierences between rural and urban
zones together with the issue of provincial quotas set for universities. To make interviewees
freely make comments without straying from the point, all the questions follow the guidance of
a semi-structured interview (SOUSA; BAPTISTA, 2000, p. 80), which is a method to collect
main opinions of an individual or a small group “without time limits and a broad freedom to
state their views” (SOUSA; BAPTISTA, 2000, p. 81).
Although some students were more participative, there was agreement on the arguments
and personal accounts they presented to a larger extent.
These students armed that of three years in high school, the rst two years are spent on
studying while the nal year is entirely for preparation for the exam. As is mentioned by Heger
(2017), the planning of going to university begins from zhongkao, the exam for high school
entrance. Nevertheless, the students said that the preparation along with pressure for college
entrance actually starts since primary school because pupils have to take an exam in the nal
year of primary school to get access to junior secondary school. Candidates with higher marks
also have better choices of schools. In this sense, the direct link between performance in exams
and possibility of attend better schools has successively existed since the beginning of primary
school, which will become the most apparent in gaokao and the entry to university.
When it comes to tension associated with gaokao, these students conceded being stressed
out and pointed out a rise in suicide rate with gaokao approaching. One of them recalled that
a few years ago she heard of a piece of news that a young student committed suicide at home
after being forced by his parents to study hard time and again. They acknowledged feeling
exhausted in face of pressure exerted by both parents and teachers, explaining that parents want
their children to have a brighter future and save the whole family’s face through succeeding in
the exam. Therefore there is a widespread saying that gaokao is an exam for parents rather than
students. Similar opinions can be found in researches of Kan (2013) and Heger (2017).
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
The students also agreed that pressure of teachers is acute owing to the correlation between
their salaries as well as positions and the note of the class under their charge. Questions about
whether there is penalty prescribed by professors as described in reports of Larmer (2015) and
Ash (2016) are answered armatively. For example, if not getting a mark required, students
had to do more exercise and tests than others. Besides, teachers usually asked their students to
add morning jogging in routine. Those who refused to do so would face more homework and
exercises. When asked about activities beside studying, those students said they only have life
consisted of studying and sleeping, adding that their teachers prohibited them from reading
books unrelated to exam content and any other activities having nothing to do with gaokao. But
a student oered a fun fact that teachers impose exercise for students to work out and relax.
However this is only restricted to jogging or strolling while collective sports like football and
basketball are objected to for its risk of causing injuries and hence interrupting preparation for
the exam. One of the student recounted that for many times she and her classmates did not want
to jog simply out of unwillingness but had to do so, especially in the morning, for otherwise
they would be punished. In other words, although physical exercise is supposed to release
students’ stress, making it mandatory ends to be paradoxical with its benets. And so, the only
activity which is “not studying” also owns an compulsory character.
Another aspect in gaokao to take into account is the anxiety that students demonstrate
about how their answers in exams will be scored. For example, I once helped a middle school
student who was preparing for zhongkao. One day she was pretty upset about getting 96% in
the English test. Then she showed me his answer sheet and explained to me that the loss of 4%
resulted from his unclear handwriting of the letter “v” in “above”, which might be misread as a
“u”. Personally, I did not nd any mistake. But the fact was that girl was truly frustrated (with
herself) for she had not obtained the maximum note. I told this experience to my interviewees.
They considered it to be common and told me that teachers will pay special attention to clear
orthography. The clean presentation of answer sheet is vital because every teacher will correct
a great amount of sheets. A letter not perfectly legible will take teachers more time to tell,
and annoyance like this might inuence how they score the answer, sometimes subtracting
scores. Preparation for gaokao is thoroughly combined with the skill to present answers in a
best manner, either in terms of content or format, to delight teachers correcting papers. That is
to say, the bother is not merely about writing a text as better as one can, but also the prediction
of teachers’ correction. It is also for this reason that some authors refer to some students as
machines to take exams (WANG; HUANG; SCHNELL, 2013; LARMER, 2015; ASH, 2016).
Concerning the relationship with their colleagues, those students admitted that teachers
will encourage students to compete with others. One shared that she had a teacher who kept
repeating that “To enter a university you don’t have to be the best, but you have to be better
than your classmates”. Other teachers also reminded the class from time to time that only 20%
of them would have the chance to a great university and so everyone must exert their utmost
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eorts. Competition among peers is also acknowledged to be normal and one students even said
that “friends can be enemies at the same time”. All these opinions are in accordance with studies
conducted by Kai (2012), Wang; Huang; Schnell, (2013) and Zhao; Selman; Haste, (2015) on
severe pressure induced by gaokao.
Then about the exam per se, these students discussed the obligation to conquer the exam
of Mathematics even when their aptitudes are for Humanities and Social Sciences. About the
regional gap, they approved that major cities do oer greater facility to enter well-acknowledged
universities and it is increasingly common to nd other ways to access the university, just as
Tsegay; Ashraf (2016) and Kan (2013) nd out. For more auent families, this means to study
at universities overseas or private faculty whose tuition, according to students, is far more
expensive since they are not funded by government. The students highlighted that this is more
common in metropolitans city like Canton where better-o families will not necessarily bother
about gaokao that much. They also said that in major cities there are a variety of contests
organized by municipal government on subjects such as Physics, Chemistry, English or
Mathematics. Students take part in these contests just to make their admission to universities
go more smoothly because winning these contests oers bonus points in gaokao. Another
signicant disparity among dierent regions referred to is about logistics installed in high
schools: urban high schools has Physical and Chemical laboratories, advanced technological
equipment and more qualied teachers. A student took her own experience as an example: in a
Physics exam she encountered a question on LED illumination, a term which students living in
rural villages might not even see in their life.
The poor oral capability of English teachers in rural schools is also mentioned by these
students. All factors combined, apart from relative diculty caused by the quota system in
access to university, in most cases, youngsters from countryside also face disadvantages in
quality of teachers and lack of sucient technological support at schools. Still, in favor of what
Heger (2017) concludes in her study, these ve students thought it hard to nd a better solution
impervious to corruption dealing with talent selection for higher education. Reasons given for
this conclusion is the erce competition among increasing candidates and the fact that this exam
is equal for everyone. Consequently, millions of young Chinese have no alternative but to strive
for better, believing that along with the day they pass gaokao will come the liberty.
Conclusions
The main conclusions extracted from relevant studies are corroborated by students with
more examples of pressure they are subject to, the function of parents and teachers and the
regional discrepancy, which metaphorically reects a race like Formula 1: race tracks are
the same for all drivers, they may even have the same skills as drivers, but the quality and
investment made by the race teams in the cars they drive make them take a clear advantage over
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Gaokao: far more than an exam
Manuel Duarte João Pires
others. To be specic, while all the racing teams share the same rules, some drivers enjoy an
evidently advantage with respect to investment and quality of the team they belong to. Out of
all the extrinsic factors, students in rural areas perseveringly work hard to reach a podium nish
and prove that they are excellent racers.
My home is right situated in front of a junior secondary school where I can regularly see
students smoking around the corner, buying snacks or dating in cafes. After all, they are just like
young people as in so many other parts of the world. Considering the Chinese cultural principles
and values which involve education and the image of students, the duty to pass gaokao (with
high scores) does pose unmeasurable impact on life of young Chinese students. It is by no
means a pure coincidence that when asked about how they felt after their gaokao came to an
end, they unanimously described it as “an escape from prison” or “termination of captivity”.
Chinese students’ capability or dedication to study have been well-presented and won
recognition among professors home and abroad. However, for many times, foreign teachers
remark that Chinese students depend too much on textbooks or they are not good at teamwork
(Doyle, 2005, Li, 1999). But in fact they are just accustomed to view their colleagues not as
mates or partners but someone who they have to forcefully rival with. Gaokao has aected
teaching methods and the way students learn (Liu, 2016) undeniably through not only what
it demands but also what it criticizes and forbids. Probably foreign teachers have heard of the
word “gaokao”. Still, there may be a considerable need of understanding about how it inuence
students in various aspects. To study the particularities of Chinese students’ learning pattern
compared with those from western countries and analyze communicative approach in language
teaching in China, we should not ignore the decisive role of gaokao – the most emblematic one
among countless exams over their academic journey and likely the most inuential element in
Chinese education system.
So frequently have we discussed cultural dierences, we still sometimes tend to forget
practical or logistic issues for each country. There are about 70 million of senior secondary
school students in China (Ministry of Education of the PRC, 2017), overall more than the
population of most European countries. In recent years, articles about the success of Chinese
students frequently grab headlines all over the world. It is by highlighting personal hard-work
that China manage to enhance quality and equality in dierent levels of education nationwide.
This vast country is perseveringly trying to gure out these long-existing problems every day
aware that life is a long run, as Confucius taught.
Lastly, it is worthwhile reecting on following questions: Is there a better and more
impartial method to qualify students for university in countries with territory so broad and a
population so large? Assuming that most youngsters in Western countries have to devote all
their adolescence to prepare for a college entrance exam which neglects everything beside
study, their academic progress driven by erce competition and consecutive tests, will the way
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they lead their personal and academic life be so dierent from Eastern students?
In the future, other questions may be asked and other answers may be sought regarding
the Chinese students’ schooling background, bearing in mind that before making comparisons
it is necessary to know and understand the intrinsic issues of each culture.
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Predicting the admission scores of colleges and universities is significant for high school graduates in the College Entrance Examination in China (which is also called "Gaokao" for short). The practice of parallel application for the students after Gaokao not only puts forward a question about how students could make the best of their scores and make the best choice, but also results in the strong competition among different colleges and universities, with the institutions all striving to admit high-performing students in this examination. However, existing prevailing prediction algorithms and models of the admission score of the colleges and universities based on machine learning methods do not take such competitive relationship into consideration, but simply make predictions for individual college or university, causing low predication accuracy and poor generalization capability. This paper intends to analyze such competitive relationship by extracting the important features (e.g., project, location and score discrepancy) of colleges and universities. A novel competition model incorporating the coarse clustering is thus proposed to make the predictions for colleges and universities in a same cluster. By using Gaokao data of Shanxi province in China from 2016 to 2019, we testify the proposed model in comparison with several benchmark methods. The experimental results show that the precision within the error of 3 points and 5 points are 7.3% and 2.8% higher respectively than the second-best algorithm. It has proven that the competition model has the capability to fit the competitive relationship, thus improving the predication accuracy to a large extent. Theoretically, the method proposed could provide a more advanced and comprehensive view about the analysis of factors that may influence the admission score of higher institutions. Practically, the model proposed with high accuracy could help the students make the best of their scores and apply for the college and universities more scientifically.
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p>China’s newest reform of the gaokao will split the exam into two modes, one aiming at technically inclined students and the other at the traditionally academically oriented students. Six hundred local level colleges are asked to restructure their teaching programs from academic education to applied technology and professional education. Success of the reform will hinge on the quality of the education provided by the colleges, reducing the current level of graduate unemployment, up scaling the nation’s industrial production, and raising the social status of a technical-professional education.</p
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This qualitative study examines the factors that affect students' success in National College Entrance Examination (Gao-kao). China has tremendously expanded its education system in the past three decades. A large number of students are being admitted to Chinese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) using different admission categories. However, Gao-kao has been the dominant means of admitting students in Chinese HEIs since its resumption in 1977, affecting both students' choice of university and program to join. This research explores how Chinese students succeed in this very competitive and important national examination. The study showed that students' success in Gao-kao is the result of different and interrelated factors emerging from the students, with the support of the school and parents. Moreover, the study indicated that students' peer or group discussion could be more advantageous than attending private tutoring. The study contributes in enabling educators in general and students in particular to focus on the effective ways of preparing for Gao-kao and other related examinations.
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While American educators fret about the mediocre educational performance of American students in international contests (e.g. the Program for International Student Assessment) and wonder why the Chinese education system produces such high-achieving students, educators, journalists, and public officials in China want to know what causes and how to prevent the high levels of academic stress that Chinese students, their families, and their school systems experience. So far, much of the blame for these toxic levels of stress has been directed to the Gaokao, the Chinese national college entrance exam that takes place in June each year. But to date, top-down Chinese educational reforms have been ineffective in reducing the problem. In this article, we build a case for strengthening bottom-up efforts at the school level in China and propose an evidence-based approach for addressing the challenge of academic stress experienced by Chinese students.
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The Chinese College Entrance Examination (“Gao-Kao”) is the mosthigh stakes assessment in China and parallels the most competitive examinations globally. Although it can provide Chinese educators and policy makers with an enormous pool of information about student achievement growth, school efficiency, etc., the current use of the test is mainly limited to ranking students by their raw scores. In this study, we tried two modifications to the traditional test toconnect the assessment outcomes with school accountability. First, we linked the Gao-Kao English tests from 2010 and 2011 and aligned them on a Rasch scale. Secondly, we collected background information of the examinees via a background survey.The result showed that students from Hainan province improved a little in 2011 overall. In addition, school level reports were generated to show the school’s growth as well as the county and province averages. By implementing test equating and background survey measures, this study demonstrated that Gao-Kao data can be used to construct a longitudinal data source as an initial step to build a value-added school accountability system.The aforementioned findings and how they are communicated help to frame global use of such high stakes testing. Kenneth Burke’s Dramatistic Pentad is used as foundation for communicative interpretation of these findings. The international context provides backdrop within which the findings are nested. Contrast with testing in the U.S. serves to highlight unique features of the Gao-Kao examination approach.
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At present in mainland China, competition in education has become excessive; competition has been increasing, and a competitive mentality is on the rise. The formative causes of excess competition in education are complex; with both practical and conceptual causes. Its roots can be traced to intensifying social competition, a one-sided understanding of education and human development, and a misconception of competition. In practice, excess competition in education has had a serious negative impact. On the basis of surveys, observation, and interviews, this article integrates China's social reality and educational practices and analyzes the origin and consequences of excess competition in education.