Several readers have e-mailed asking for more details on the Chinese high school leaving exam, the “gao kao.” This test is the critical fork in the road for every Chinese student. It determines whether they will go on to a high-ranking university and earn paper currency, or have come to the end of their formal education and will make “coins” and live an austere life. Questions from readers range from “how is it different from the SAT or ACT?” to “don’t they change questions each year to prevent memorization?”
The gao kao includes the three big topics of Chinese, English and mathematics worth 150 points each. If you do not score well on these sections totaling 450, it is nearly impossible to score high enough in the other sections to pass. Except for minorities admitted on quota, there is no way to avoid English.
The next sections divide into the options of science or humanities. Biology, chemistry and physics are 90 points each. Entry into the science-oriented universities requires high scores in these areas. In China, there are whole universities focused just on electrical engineering or computer studies. Tsinghua University is “China’s MIT.” In the other direction are literature, history, geography and political science. Some Chinese universities focus on just foreign studies, etc. Subsection scores are important.
Chinese university curricula are heavily focused on vocations and have minimal “general education” coursework because China’s graduates will generally stay in one job position the rest of their life. General education that allows for switching majors or having flexibility in adapting to different or changing jobs is not yet valuable. China trains for making a living, not for having a life. The gao kao sets the stage for that specialization.
Minor points are awarded for 20 or more little items based on the Chinese classics. This compares to a Western student having to know the plot to “Moby Dick.” China’s bookstores carry the equivalent of “Cliff’s Notes” that reduce their classic tomes to just a few pages of outlines. Written by teachers, they provide a quick-study that allows a student to answer the questions but never really grasp the deep meaning. This section is quick-studied and set aside because the weight of these points cannot rescue a poor score or much hurt a high score. The limited questions on their classics are predictable.
The gao kao tests are content specific, in contrast to the ACT and SAT that are “aptitude” tests. There is not as much distinction between our two tests in mathematics, because math questions are not subject to memorization. Since Chinese students are not allowed to use calculators in early grades, they know their mathematics and leave the rest of the world behind on the math ACT, SAT and GRE.
The SAT II was proposed as a content-specific test, but we have returned to using aptitude questions. Simply, ACT/SAT questions focus on thinking and applying concepts. Their gao kao has mainly focused on memorization of facts. Any teacher who wasted time asking students to apply their knowledge to develop research questions or propose new ideas would be criticized by both students and school administrators alike for taking away valuable time from increasing gao kao scores.
Each province designs their tests and proportions the difficulty according to how many good students the province produces. The tests can be more rigorous in heavily populated developed areas and lax in Tibet and other underdeveloped areas. Admission standards may be lower for students from those areas.
And when the Wenchuan earthquake devastated Sichuan Province, children of rescuers were given some preference. Even though the May 2008 earthquake struck a month before the gao kao, China re-established those schools in tents within a week, or transported students to other schools across the country to finish their studies. And they all sat for their gao kao exam that June. And the Chinese citizen’s outpouring of concern nationwide provided backpacks full of school supplies within one week of the disaster for every school child that survived. Backpacks with school supplies received priority and was delivered in trucks that followed the rescue and earth moving equipment into the disaster area.
The Chinese gao kao test is given in early June. Secondary schools briefly close regular classes and the seniors file into classrooms for this 2-day test nationwide. They must bring their photo ID to their home testing center; they cannot test just anywhere. Police deliver the new tests under guard. Students are scanned for metal and electronic devices as they enter the school. In many provinces, their right index fingerprint is electronically scanned. Over 9 million students sit for the test nationwide, but there will be no imposters. During the test, the neighborhood around the school is monitored for electronic transmissions. Each year, a very small number are arrested for using concealed electronic devices to cheat. (This would have been a capital crime in Imperial times.) Any accomplices and equipment providers are severely punished as well.
During the testing, student desks are spaced far apart and cameras may record the classrooms. Parents can sometimes watch their child on television monitors during this most stressful time of the parent’s and child’s life.
For the written portions, professors are hired to score the gao kao and they are locked away during the grading period.
Scores are publicly posted by name and score so all can see the fairness of the system—there is no FERPA student privacy law in China. The cut line is based on university capacity, and the order of scores determines whether you get into the first, second or third rank schools. China also has “xue xiao” or three-year schools (elementary teachers were generally only trained for three years). And there are technical schools that train for work in the trades. Some universities also administer specific skill tests to applicants who score high enough to apply.
Students who do not pass the gao kao, or who elect to not take it, still get a high school diploma if they pass their regular coursework. China would never consider denying a diploma on the basis of one final high-stakes test, as do many states.
Five years ago, China’s Ministry of Education recognized that there were creative students who might be “Einsteins” in one narrow area, but score low across the broad range tested by the gao kao. These potential Nobel Prize winners might never gain access to the elite colleges. The MoE proposed allowing students to be admitted based just on recommendation letters from the headmasters. The public overwhelmingly protested this plan, pointing out the possibility of a rich family donating money to a school and their less-than-scholarly student then making an “end run” to college around the gao kao. The government withdrew the proposal with the face-saving proviso that schools could write recommendation letters but the student still had to score high enough to be admitted.
Each province designs and rewrites their gao kao annually, but the ability to vary the questions is limited. Therefore memorizing answers for the previously-released questions remains a very effective way to get the highest scores. Their professional teaching journals publish the most recently released questions; teachers immediately modify their curriculum to cover it. Older Chinese teachers have absolutely no idea how to develop their own curriculum and in-class tests (but soon, under our new “Core” and its national tests, neither will American teachers).
In 1993, I worked with the Shanghai Biology Teachers Group at East China Normal University. They came to recognize that their teach-to-the-test method was a direct cause of the lack of creativity in Chinese science. It took them two years to remove the biology component from the gao kao, and they encouraged biology teachers to begin using questioning. But as soon as students realized biology would not be on the gao kao, parents told their children to use biology class time to rest, since the other classes were what really counted. Two years later, biology was back on the gao kao. Once you are “caught” in the teach-to-the-test system, it can be very hard to get off of it. And as long as there is a need to fairly ration the limited educational opportunities available, the Chinese gao kao is not going to go away.
Nevertheless, the biology tests in several provinces in China are now beginning to incorporate questions that require students to use their content understanding to think, to apply concepts, and to interpret graphs and design experiments. These types of questions were the specialty of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and were used in U.S. biology classrooms for decades. I train my Kansas biology teachers how to test in this style, and I use them as examples when I speak at normal universities here.
Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a biology student teacher at South China Normal University where I spoke last month. She wanted even more examples of BSCS-style questions. Yes!