On June 7th, around 9 million Chinese high school students will begin the three-day-long Gaokao college entrance exam. Despite the massive scale of the test and the seemingly glacial pace of reform in Chinese education, some interesting developments have affected this year’s test takers – and by extension, prospective applicants to schools abroad.
Let’s look at what they are.
Hukou (Residency) System
The biggest change this year revolves around the hukou (household registration) system. In the past, students with local residency (hukou) were the only ones allowed to take the Gaokao in their schools. If you don’t have a local residency, you’d have to travel to wherever your household is registered, and take the exams there.
But China is a nation of migrant workers, and the millions of their children going to school far away from their registered households had only two choices when it came to the Gaokao: 1) return to their home provinces to take the Gaokao, where their chances of entering high-quality universities would be staggeringly lower; or 2) give up taking the Gaokao altogether.
This has led to cases like Zhan Haite, the 15-year old girl barred from entering high school in Shanghai (where she grew up and where her parents work), and Zhang Tu, the Beijing high school senior who, despite his qualifications, can’t compete with his peers this year for China’s top universities due to his lack of a Beijing hukou.
These restrictions are finally being loosened this year. Students from 8 provinces and municipalities (including Heilongjiang, Chongqing, and Zhejiang) will for the first time be competing side by side with students who do not hold local residency. Beijing and Guangdong Province have similar plans to be enacted in 2014.
Australian Universities Increase Access to Chinese Students
Changes in municipal and provincial administration of the Gaokao are not unheard of, but international attitudes toward the Gaokao is changing as well. In early 2012, a series of Australian universities announced that they would allow students from mainland China to submit their Gaokao scores as part of their application. These schools now include University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and Monash University. Where previously students had to provide both IELTS scores and proof of 8 to 12 months of previous study at a local college, Gaokao score submission now allows them to directly enter these Australian universities. For many students, this means that they don’t have to sacrifice their studies at home in order to meet international application requirements.
Gaokao-Takers Drop in Numbers Nationwide
There have been more negative developments this year as well. One of the most significant is the continuing drop in Gaokao takers nationwide. In 2008, students taking the Gaokao peaked at 10.5 million, but by 2012, the number had fallen to about 9 million, and it is certain to fall again this coming year.
The drop has been even more precipitous in certain urban areas; in 2006, Beijing had 110,000 test takers, with the number falling to just 76,007 by 2011. Anecdotal evidence points to a similar sharp decline in Shanghai, where an estimated 1/3 of eligible students in the city will not be taking the Gaokao this year. We’ll examine the causes and the implications of this drop separately down the road, but it is certain that this is driven equally by the desire for education abroad and the desire to escape the Gaokao itself and the entire exam-based system that it represents.
How does this affect the prospective applicants to your school?
The truth is that by the time China’s national college entrance exam rolls around, Chinese students have already been through two other such exams: 1) the Zhongkao (high school entrance exam), and 2) the Xiaoshengchu (the middle school entrance exam). Similar in concept to the Gaokao, the high school and middle school entrance exams are also seen as determinants of future academic success, and the pressure to succeed is as unhealthy as it is occasionally fatal.
Through these earlier periods of high stress exam prep, Chinese applicants to US universities have had to stay psychologically strong and lead highly focused lives. Who they emerge as may depend on whether they are worriers or warriors, but all know early on that China’s exam-focused education turns teaching into training, and study into memorization. The brightest and most ambitious know that they should ask for more from their education.
The changes occurring in the Gaokao system this year are a small start, but the high-stakes test still dictates over a third of high school education. With no significant movement toward changing the earlier-stage entrance exams, China will drive its brightest students away from domestic institutions and toward quality international institutions for decades to come.