In China, the most critical days of your life come in your senior year on the second week of June. It is called the gao kao or "high test." For high school graduates in China, it determines your future.
Pass the gao kao and you will go on to college and eventually earn cash.
Fail, and you cannot go to college. You will earn coins. Your life will be harder. So will your parent’s and grandparent’s lives.
China envies the U.S. social security system. But with so much payment for work being handled in cash at the end of the day, China has been unable to establish payroll deductions for a large portion of the workforce that would be required to support a universal retirement system. A child in Asian culture feels an obligation to care for parents and grandparents. When a student fails the gao kao, that student fails the whole family.
Many Americans secure in their retirement are proud to tell their children: "You will not have to worry about taking care of me in my old age." That statement is unthinkable in Asia. It holds the double-edged message that Westerners do not need to care if our children succeed academically. An American student can blow off tests with little concern for it affecting family.
Last year, approximately 10 million Chinese seniors took the gao kao. There were enough seats in China’s universities for about 6 million students. So, four million flunked. Those passing with the highest scores could enter the Rank One schools: Beida, Tsinghua, Fudan, and other universities we would consider equivalent to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc. With lower passing scores a student is eligible for second or third tier schools.
The gao kao is a nine-hour test spread over several days. Security is tight. Exams are delivered under police escort. Students entering the test hall are scanned more thoroughly for electronic devices than at an airport. Cameras pan the classroom while the test is in progress.
Of the 10 million test takers last year, there were fewer than 3000 who attempted to cheat. Scoring is conducted under tight security and final scores are posted publicly because the system needs to be seen as fair and transparent. American concerns for educational privacy rights make no sense.
This is not the first high-stakes test Chinese students encounter. Between junior and senior high school, students take the zhong kao or "middle test." In rural areas where there are not enough good teachers, half of the students may fail to move into senior high school. Those students will track into industrial training or agriculture. But in the developed cities, the majority of students enter senior high school and pass the gao kao with high enough scores to enter the universities.
Why should Americans pay attention to the gao kao? Under federal pressure, over forty states have decided to adopt the Common Core and its national assessments starting 2015–math and language arts for now. Science and other areas are to follow.
In China, every teacher scans education journals for the most recent gao kao questions. They carefully align their courses to teach to that test. Memorize. Memorize. Memorize. Teachers do not know how to design their own curriculum, ask creative questions, or lead students in problem solving. Students and parents do not want to divert any energy away from the memorization that will get the highest scores on the gao kao. This is not like the ACT or SAT that are general aptitude tests. The gao kao is content specific, just as is planned for our Common Core assessments.
China’s attempts to get off of the gao kao have failed because the uniform test serves to ensure financial equity: only students with the highest scores get the advantage of going to a university.
China knows it prepares students to take tests well. China also knows that no one educated in China and researching in China has ever received a Nobel Prize in science. The U.S. has 271; China has zero!
What I observe in China each June, I expect to see here in America within the next decade.