Students Seek Alternatives to College Entrance Exam

In the New York Times, Edward Wong writes about the rigors of the life-changing gaokao, or college entrance exam, which determines the future of every Chinese high school student. With the intense pressure of the test and its focus on rote memorization, some in China are now calling for reforms. Wong reports:

In a country where is so highly prized, the score that a student earns after the days of testing at the end of high school is believed to set the course of one’s life. The score determines not just whether a young person will attend a Chinese university, but also which one — a selection, many Chinese say, that has a crucial bearing on career prospects.

But debate appears to have grown more heated lately over the value of the gaokao (pronounced gow-kow). Critics say the exam promotes the kind of rote learning that is endemic to education in China and that hobbles creativity. It leads to enormous psychological strain on students, especially in their final year of high school. In various ways, the system favors students from large cities and well-off families, even though it was designed to create a level playing field among all Chinese youth.

Last month, a 12-minute television segment railing against the exam by Zhong Shan, a well-known talk show host in Hunan Province, gained popularity on the Web and became a focal point for fury against the gaokao in particular and the Chinese educational system in general. Also widespread on the Internet were photographs taken in a Hubei Province classroom of students hooked up to intravenous drips of amino acids while cramming.

Perhaps most shocking to the public was the story of Liu Qing, a student from Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, whose family and teachers hid from her for two months the fact that her father had died so as not to upset her before the exam. Ms. Liu, according to reports in the Chinese news media, did not hear the news about her father until after she had completed the test.

On a Forbes blog, Steve Cohen writes that partly in response to disillusionment with the gaokao, more and more Chinese students are applying to college in the U.S. and other foreign countries:

That Chinese students are applying to American schools in great numbers is no secret, though it has been a source of controversy. Wong’s article cites a Chinese Education Ministry statistic that the number of Chinese students from top cities attending university abroad increased by 20% per year from 2008 to 2011, partially, it seems, to escape the gaokao. Even though the SAT is not administered in mainland China and students who wish to take it must travel (to Hong Kong, for example), SAT prep is big business on the mainland.

As China’s economic growth continues to give more and more students the opportunity to opt out of the gaokao system, expect more and more of them to do so.

From Kindergarten through high school, a Chinese student’s academic career is focused on taking and passing a series of tests, with the ultimate goal of excelling on the gaokao. To this end, much of the school day is spent indoors, staring at textbooks. And this has had another unintended consequence: an epidemic of myopia. The Los Angeles Times reports:

By forcing youngsters to put down their pencils and expose their eyes to natural light, researchers think they can stem an explosion of nearsightedness in China.

By the time they complete high school, as many as 90% of urban Chinese youth are afflicted by the condition known as myopia, in which close objects can be seen clearly but things just a few feet or inches away start to blur.

That’s about three times the rate among U.S. children. Even more troubling is the severity of the Chinese cases. Between 10% and 20% of nearsighted Chinese children are expected to develop “high myopia,” which is largely untreatable and may lead to blindness.

“The problem for China is really quite massive,” said Ian Morgan, a visiting professor at the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center at Sun Yat-sen University who helped organize the three-year clinical trial in Guangzhou. “Their best-educated kids — kids who are going to be the intellectuals or political leaders — are going to be progressively losing vision as they get older.”

Read more about education and the college entrance exam (gaokao) via CDT.