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Gaokao in the Time of COVID-19

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Gaokao in the Time of COVID-19

Debate over the decision to postpone China’s college entrance exam crystallizes deeper problems with educational inequality.

Gaokao in the Time of COVID-19

In this June 8, 2012 file photo, parents take photos of children who finished their national college exams outside a high school in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File

On March 31 China’s Ministry of Education announced that the college entrance examination (or gaokao) would be postponed for a month until July 7 and 8. The municipality of Beijing had been undecided until April 12, when it announced that the exam would take place at the same time as others. Hubei remains the only province without set dates.

Administered almost without fail every summer since its inception in 1952, the gaokao’s dates have been affected only three times: suspended as being irrelevant for the people during the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1977; permanently shifted from July to June starting in 2003 in anticipation of a series of painful weather events including heatwaves and floods; and postponed for a month in 2008 for 120,000 Sichuan students affected by the devastating Wenchuan earthquake. Nothing short of revolution or catastrophe can affect the gaokao, a crucial stepping-stone toward higher-paid employment.

This year, it was concerns over fairness that motivated the official decision. With online lessons replacing classrooms, the Ministry of Education (MoE) noted that students in villages and poorer regions were disproportionately affected by the new study conditions. According to Wang Hui, director of the Department of Student Affairs at the MoE, postponing the college entrance exams will help maximize education equity. Some provinces, like Jiangsu, have already implemented “personalized arrangements” of one-on-one tutoring to help students catch-up.

Many children with limited access to technology and the internet agree that their preparation has been affected. “I don’t have a laptop and had to use my phone for online classes,” confirms a student in rural Hubei. “Sometimes, the connection would break, so I would go on the rooftop to follow the lecture.” For her, “an extra month might change a lot,” as she will be able to focus more on learning English words and grammar, a part of the exam that scares her most.

The Reaction

On the Chinese platform Weibo, a popular video with over 2.4 million views displays thousands of supportive comments from people concerned about online schooling. Worried that the epidemic would affect his students’ test preparation, Mr. Yu, a senior class teacher at Henan Huaiyang Middle School, urges students to avoid laziness: “Please, put your efforts together and prepare for gaokao,” he cries.

The chance to return to in-person teaching may also be beneficial for children teetering on the edge of the 600 points necessary for basic admission. For those with low scores and poor self-discipline who fare better under classmates and teachers’ supervision, “this [extra] month has a great effect,” comments a netizen.

The overall response, however, has been mixed. Many online clamored for the exam to take place sooner rather than later. “After more than one month of online classes, I have to add another month at school… I don’t want to learn anymore,” complains one distressed pupil. Reminiscing about his own gaokao period, another adds, “If I had to wait another month, I would collapse.”

Aside from comments from tired, mostly urban students eager for well-deserved holidays, others are also questioning the effectiveness of such a delay. The consensus seems to be that an extra month of study will merely enable students already studying well to do better, without offering enough options or time for others with low scores to improve substantially. “To those who don’t do anything, it won’t make any difference, they will fail,” deplores a Weibo user. Rather than correcting unfairness, pupils believe it will only add more psychological pressure. For those who were unprepared for June, “one month won’t help at all,” reads another comment.

Deeper Educational Inequalities

The attempt to address inequalities by postponing the gaokao this year papers over more entrenched issues than simply patchy internet connection.

Most salient is the uneven distribution of universities. Top institutions that are part of the Double First-Class (双一流) project remain overly concentrated in the east. Beijing alone has 26, while Shanghai boasts 10 of the highest-ranked institutions. This is more than those in the western and central regions combined, where provinces have at most one well-regarded university. Chinese higher education institutions follow fixed enrollment quotas that tend to favor students resident in the province in which the university is located. Sohu Education Report indicates that in 2008, Beijing students were 24 times more likely to secure one of their 282 allocated places at the prestigious Peking University (PKU) compared to Henan students vying for only 79 seats. Five years later, the gap widened and Beijing students became 31 times more likely to secure a PKU spot. “Rural students are getting left behind,” commented the assistant vice principal of Tsinghua University High School, Jiang Xueqin, in 2014.

Profound change has been slow, despite multiple efforts by the government to implement different recruitment channels for students disadvantaged by quotas or who may not score well on the gaokao. Under the cross-province admission quota plan of April 2016, the government reallocated 160,000 seats from 12 economically developed areas to 10 provinces with fewer economic resources, mostly in western and central China. In 2003, it established IFAP (Independent Freshman Admission Program) to recruit brilliant students with low gaokao scores, although the program ended in January 2020 after a flurry of 16- year-olds with dubious patents (and some alleged bribes). It will be replaced by a pilot project based at 85 percent on gaokao scores to avoid ambiguous university-set criteria that could be manipulated.

Clearly, the government is trying to find a solution, and it should be mentioned that it has had some success. Children of rural migrants can now take the exam in the cities where they live rather than where they hold registration status. More rural students are enrolled in university. Enrollment processes have been streamlined.

But resolving the issue of education (and mostly university admissions) inequality remains a major pain point for a government that handles multiple grievances both online and on the streets about precisely this topic. The clamor stems mostly from parents frustrated by fixed quotas and more recently by the 10 extra points to be awarded to the children of Hubei-based medical professionals. While university enrollment rates have increased drastically from 5 percent in 1977, the exam has continued to be intensely competitive as thousands more students sit for it every year. Any points out of the maximum of 750 (never achieved) can make or break a child’s future.

What complicates the matter is that, contrary to popular belief, the gaokao is not homogenous. Following a policy first adopted in Shanghai in 1987, 16 provinces are allowed to design their own exam questions to better fit their regional curriculum. Other regions continue to follow the national exam. These essay questions from 2013 exam papers exemplify the difference from the national exam, which asked students for an article on the nature of relations among high school classmates.

Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream of things that never were and say “Why not?”’, George Bernard Shaw. Write an essay on how you think of these words.

A young man was depressed as his career stagnated. He met an old man by the seashore. The old man grabbed a handful of sand and threw them on the seashore, then asked him, “Can you find them?” The young men said no. Then the old man threw a pearl on the seashore, and asked him the same question again. The young man said yes. Then he had an epiphany: one should be something different before he got recognition.

The containers for milk are always square boxes; containers for mineral water are always round bottles; round wine bottles are usually placed in square boxes. Write a composition on the subtle philosophy of the round and square.

Efforts to alleviate inequalities through more holistic learning and creativity face both anxious parents and universities worried about maintaining their rankings. Parents protest reforms calling for less intense competition when scoring well is still the only way forward for those who can’t afford studying overseas. Extra points allocated to minority or disadvantaged students from poorer regions have enabled some to enter prestigious establishments, but universities worry they will be unable to catch up, as more points don’t make up for gaps in coursework. Referring to two students admitted into a top university last year despite low scores, a teacher commented: “We worry about them a lot. I don’t know if they’ll be able to withstand the workload.”

What Next?

The government may seek to allay the grueling competition and smooth education inequalities through better admissions quotas and innovative schooling, while private companies develop the EdTech sphere. Whether the two forces will converge remains in doubt.

COVID-19 has refocused the light on education disparities among students competing for their future on two short, hot days in July. It is unclear if the extra month will help students push themselves above the cut-off line for university admissions. But it is obvious that no band-aid will remedy the persisting and complex imbalances in a country of 10.7 million hopeful college entrants a year.

Ekaterina Kologrivaya is a sinologist who graduated from the Higher School of Economics with an M.A. in Asian studies. She currently works as an environmental assistant at Philanthropy in Motion in Beijing, while receiving her second masters at the Yenching Academy of Peking University.

Emma Shleifer graduated in War Studies from King’s College, London, and is currently studying Chinese foreign policy as a Yenching Academy scholar at Peking University.