Police cars blocked the street, parked front bumper to back bumper, forming a barricade to traffic. Five blocks ahead, a similar barricade prevented any oncoming traffic. I had told my taxi driver "Yangling High School" and we had arrived. I faced the quietest scene in China since I landed in Beijing one week after the Wenchuan earthquake and the whole country came to a halt in a moment of silence.
But this was an annual event. It is the most critical time in the life of any Chinese youth. This was the second day of the two day national high school leaving exam (or college entrance exam), the gao kao. About 9 million graduating seniors across China were taking this test today. A little over 7 million will have scores high enough to enter college. And the higher the score, the higher rank the college.
Those that fail? Their life will be harder; their pay far, far lower. And it is not just the student that fails, but parents and grandparents too. China has not yet achieved a social security system and for many, their child remains the "social security" for two parents and four grandparents.
That is why parents and grandparents crowded this street outside the school fence. As I walked among them, the quietness was eerie. China is a country of constant chatter. But the little being said was in low and somber voices. You did not have to speak Chinese to detect the fretting and the anxiety.
Yangling is not a tourist town. You can count the number of Westerners here on one hand. So I am accustomed to heads turning as I pass through. But today, no one looked up or noticed me. I was like a ghost drifting invisible through this crowd. Their minds were on their student who had now come to this decisive moment in their lives. If he or she failed, they all failed.
My boss here is a vice president at the university and has oversight of this high school. He had explained how his team had tested out the cameras the week before. In every one of the test classrooms, cameras were mounted that could scan every corner of the room. And they were all linked to Beijing. In some cities, parents can even watch their child on camera during these two days of testing, but not here.
Tests were delivered in armored cars by armed police (normal police in China are not armed). Students filed in for the test through security scanners, similar to our airport security, and are patted down and wanded. During these two days, police also man full-frequency scanners to detect any transmissions from inside the classrooms. Last year over 60 such cases were detected nationwide. Not only the student, but the parents, the equipment salesmen and anyone remotely involved received the harshest of sentences. This is one issue for which China has "zero tolerance."
These students and parents will not learn their scores today. It will take weeks to grade the Chinese, math and English papers, plus the sub-tests. That process is also under high security. A professor colleague in Nanjing regularly graded exams, and he was incommunicado for a solid week, locked on a floor of a hotel. I could never visit him the second week of June.
Scores will be posted when finished. The names will be there for all to see, from top score to bottom, with the cut-off clearly marked. We fret about privacy and have our FERPA laws to hide our students’ failures. But here in China, this total transparency is absolutely essential so that all can see that admission to college did not give preference to the wealthy and powerful.
This test has always been a one-time event, with students all across China beginning and ending at the same time. But today, television is making a big deal over two students who cannot take the test. They were victims of a knife attack on a train the day before the test, and are in the hospital. The news media has focused heavily on their plight. Security camera footage of the stabbing is on all the channels. The Ministry of Education will administer a special test to them when they recover.
But how about those who had less dramatic medical events or became sick with normal but debilitating illnesses on these days? With nearly 7 million students, those cases would run into the thousands, and the opportunity for cheating would rapidly get out of control. They get no dispensation. It has to be that way–for the good of all.