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The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gaokao), a centralized test administered to high school students seeking admission to college, has been in use since the late 1970s and retains a strong social and educational function and significance. Concerns and debates elicited by the Entrance Exam, and the related reform policies that intend to mitigate problems surrounding it, include policies working towards diversifying admission standards and implementing talent-based selection criteria
Gaokao 高考is the Chinese term for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (hereafter referred to as “the Entrance Exam”), the primary avenue for high school graduates to gain admission to colleges and universities in China. The Entrance Exam is a nationally centralized, high-stakes examination that has been a standard since post–Cultural Revolution China. Although the Ministry of Education began experimenting with alternative examinations and admission methods in the late 1990s, the influence of such polices introduced to enhance educational quality (sùzhì 素质) in content, teaching methods, student learning outcomes, and management remains marginal compared to the Entrance Exam. Since 1998, China has experienced a decade of rapid expansion in higher education, which increased the student population in such institutions by over 5.9 times; the average admission rate for high school graduates increased from 34 percent in 1998 to 64 percent in 2009 (Ministry of Education 2010a). The Entrance Exam remains highly competitive, not only because of the cultural-social “educational desire” of the Chinese people (Kipnis 2011), but also because, along with the expansion process, higher education institutions in China have become increasingly stratified in terms of quality and social recognition. “The competition and desire for admission to elite universities has increased even as the size of China’s college-going population has exploded” (Ross and Wang 2010, 4).
Social Significance and National Policies
The social significance of the Entrance Exam exceeds its educational and pedagogical functions as “the engine of the formal schooling system driving and braking pedagogical practices and outcomes” (Ross and Wang 2011, 208). It has been described as the “centerpiece” of China’s “educational structure” (Zeng 1999, 1) and the root of China’s “examination culture,” which some scholars believe dates back to the examination system used to admit candidates to the civil service in the ancient dynasties (Cheng 2010). Success in the Entrance Exam is still perceived as the best means of access to higher education, and therefore, to upward social mobility in a rapidly developing China. Although there is evidence to show that equity and fairness, especially for rural and impoverished students, are compromised by the current practice of the Entrance Exam, some scholars, to the contrary, argue that the Entrance Exam is the best possible practice to ensure fairness in today’s China, where the public accountability system has yet to be fully established (Liu 2009). Moreover, a number of scholars likewise believe that the Entrance Exam, rooted in deep sociocultural foundations, is one of the cornerstones of social harmony (Zheng 2010).
On the other hand, the “Blueprint for Medium and Long-Term National Educational Reform and Development (2010–2020),” hereafter called “the 2020 Blueprint,” was officially released by the Ministry of Education in July 2010, It advocated reform in the Entrance Exam and summarized six of its shortcomings (MOE 2010b):
- “A single examination defines a student’s life/destiny.”
- Admission criteria are over-reliant on the college entrance examination score, so that the selection criteria are not comprehensive.
- There is only one set of examination questions for different types of higher education institutions.
- The content and style of the examinations are not in line with the purpose of suzhi (ability-based) education.
- Admission opportunities across provinces are unequal.
- Higher education institutions lack autonomy in admission procedures.
The 2020 Blueprint did not offer concrete solutions to these problems, apart from calling for improving the effectiveness of implementation in current reform policies. For example, the 2020 Blueprint called for greater emphasis to be placed “on assessing students’ overall ability” and to “improve the transparency of the information and strengthening the social credibility system” (MOE 2010b) of the Entrance Exam.
Concerns and Reforms
In addition to the pitfalls pointed out by the 2020 Blueprint, the Entrance Exam has also been criticized for “hamstringing institutional autonomy and innovation; reducing schooling to a soulless competition; and unfairly advantaging urban children with greater educational opportunities” (Ross and Wang 2011, 207). Two major streams of reform have been initiated, intending to ameliorate these problems. The first aims to grant more autonomy to higher education institutions, therefore diversifying admission standards. Polices in this category have included the “university-based examination,” referring to some elite universities that are allowed to administer institutional examinations using exam papers and criteria designed according to the needs of these institutions. The scores that candidates acquire in university-based examinations can be counted as supplementary criteria when candidates are considered for admission into these institutions.
The second stream of reforms intends to interject talent-based selection criteria into the traditional form of the Entrance Exam. This means that students who receive certain national- or provincial-level awards in talent competitions, such as mathematics or science Olympiads or artistic talent competitions can get bonus points, which can then be added to the score the candidates acquire in the Entrance Exam. Although the implementation of these alternatives added talent-based selection criteria to the Entrance Exam, to date the number of students influenced by these policies is less than 10 percent of the total number of students who take the exam. Moreover, the scores students have gained in these alternative assessments in the end can only be added to the Entrance Exam, which means that it is still the defining factor in higher education admission.
The side effects of these alternative examination policies are that students from rural areas and less developed regions are further disadvantaged, due to a lack of resources and information in gaining access to such alternatives (Wang 2010). The Ministry of Education therefore cautions that “each step in the reform process should be taken with extra caution, as the entrance exam is directly related to China’s goal of maintaining social harmony” (China Central Television News 2010).
“Gaokao,” the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, as the primary avenue for entrance to higher education institutions, serves as the symbol for a meritocratic ideal, although there are controversies and evidence challenging the perceived ideals and functions of the Entrance Exam. Bound up with complex social, demographic, and economic changes that challenge China’s goals of balanced development, reforms of the Entrance Exam have been slow and challenging, although some talent-based selection criteria and alternative examination policies have been enacted during the past two decades.
The author thanks Professor Heidi Ross at Indiana University for her help in revising and improving this article.
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