The first weekend in June brings China’s "gao kao" or "high test."
Today, I am walking through the crowd of students awaiting the re-opening of the school doors and the beginning of the afternoon test session.This is the test that will determine their life. Score high and they may be able to enter the first rank of Chinese universities. Score lower and they will be eligible for lesser ranked schools, the second or third "band."
The gao kao will take up today—a Sunday—and will last through tomorrow as well.
Police cars block off the streets in all directions for several blocks. Parents are bringing back their senior students from lunch. Had this been a working weekday, parents would still take off work to be with their student on this most critical of all days. There are no smiles and the atmosphere is serious and tense.
Across China, over 9 million students will sit for the gao kao today, a number that has slowly been declining as China is seeing population growth level off. And each year, a slightly higher percentage of students pass the gao kao, the cut score for passing being determined by the university capacity in China. While China’s universities have been growing dramatically, university enrolments in China are likewise leveling off. The percentage of students passing the gao kao has steadily grown to over 70 percent as school access improves and better teachers prepare better students.
But here—now—these students see their fate rest on this one bank of tests. Pass and succeed in college and the student will make cash. Fail and their fate is a poor job that makes coins a day. In China far more than in the United States, education segregates the rich from the poor.
For poorer families, parents, grandparents and extended relatives have sacrificed to invest in their child’s tuition. The student’s ability to get a good job may mean social security for the whole family. Some parents who accompany their student back to the afternoon test are, from their attire, obviously affluent. Nevertheless you can see their worry about their child’s stress on their faces.
Three girls and one of their mothers sit at a table awaiting the gates to reopen and the 3:00 pm testing to resume. I ask if they speak English and they shake their heads "no" which is incorrect, for they understood me and English is a part of the gao kao. But this is a stressful time so I speak with them in Chinese.
"Do you think you did well on the test this morning?" I ask.
They all shake their heads. Their scores can never be good enough. Even Chinese students who make "A’s" in America never think it is good enough.
"If you test well today, will you apply to a number one school in Beijing or Shanghai?" I ask.
"It depends if the opportunity opens up," they reply. The question is almost overwhelming.
If you ask an American student, they give you their plans all laid out (whether it comes to pass or not). But ask Chinese students and they see it as all depending on what opportunities arise—on "fate." Be exceptional in China and there are a hundred others around you being exceptional as well. Come to America and be exceptional and you do not have as much competition.
All of them carry a small plastic zip-lock type bag with pencils and an official form, similar to the quart bag you carry liquids into an airport scanner. And that is about what it is. I ask to see her admission slip to enter the gao kao. She shows me how it has her photo and attests to her residency (hukou)—she must have official residence here. It bears an official stamp.
The mother says the girls will all do well. Her words show no sign of giving reassurance to them. I thank them for talking with me; the students notice the line is queuing. There must now be over 500 somber students gathering to line up. There may be over a thousand when they all arrive. And with China having but one time zone, this is happening to 9 million students at this exact moment across China.
Their screening as they enter will be more rigorous than the TSA screening that we are accustomed to when we fly. Schools across China have been installing security cameras in these last weeks. Cameras will constantly pan over them as they work at widely-spaced desks. Every official in the Ministry of Education in China will be on duty today. Beijing will watch these cameras in schools across the country. All police are on duty as well, from the time that guards bring the gao kao tests to the school until the final essays are graded by isolated professors housed in seclusion. Black vans are labeled "SWAT"; these special officers stand out in their basic duty uniforms.
An ominous black van with what looks like a circular radar disc atop crosses the police line. It is specially rigged to detect electronic transmissions. With over 9 million test-takers across China, there will be a few who attempt to cheat. They will be caught. The public demand for fairness and equity in this life-determining test makes this crime a serious offense. As I walk back to campus, I notice additional black scanner trucks on each side of the high school—very modern and highly specialized detection units that are used just once-a-year.
Unlike the United States where schools have to cheerlead students during assessments in order to prevent "happy clickers," there is absolutely no cheerleading needed here in China. There is student stress in both countries, but here in China, every student's future livelihood depends on taking this test seriously.