The last weekend of June is the stressful time for a young student across China. While Chinese seniors take the gao kao (“high test”) that determines their entry into universities during the first weekend of June, China’s middle school students now face the zhong kao (“middle test”).
China offers all children elementary school and breaks high school into a lower and upper level similar to our junior high (grades 7-9) and senior high (grades 10-12) levels.
The zhong kao is a major test given before the senior high level. Just as high school students focus on passing the gao kao that determines their life, junior high students prepare for the zhong kao. Twenty years ago, when there were not enough high school seats in developed China, this test did trim off the bottom portion of low performers who would not be able to attend high school. But today, with better teachers and more schools in the developed cities, most students in developed China pass and finish senior high school.
However, in the countryside there is still a massive shortage of good teachers. And even more importantly, over 250 million rural parents have migrated to the cities and the child they left behind may not get the educational support at home from their grandparents.
In rural China, students who do not pass the zhong kao may help farm or enter very basic vocational training for work in factories. Their future will be in lower class jobs. But in Nanjing, Shanghai and other developed areas, nearly every student passes the zhong kao to continue the last three years of senior high school preparation for the gao kao.
So why do students worry and study hard for this middle test? Schools in developed China are ranked according to the rate that they get their students into the best colleges—that means their graduates will score high on the gao kao. To turn out the best, the “Number One” high schools only take the best. And that is based on the zhong kao scores. This jockeying for the best schools starts even earlier. Parents select preschools and elementary schools to gain an advantage. But these two official tests are the main gatekeepers. This middle test determines who gets the advantage of attending the best high schools.
Most parents lament that their child’s only happy and carefree years will be the few short years before preschool.
China is not alone in pre-sorting children. The Commonwealth countries (Australia, India, etc.) also have the all-important General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) test for college entrance. Before the last years of high school (forms), they test and track students into A-level (academic) and O-level (ordinary) programs. This system grew from the belief of their educational leaders that intelligence was 80 percent inherited. Therefore it was futile to waste advanced coursework on students who did not have the innate intellectual ability. High school “upper form” students are tracked into business math or college algebra, etc.
My Asian colleagues absolutely reject any inherited genetic factor. They consider their students’ abilities to be determined completely by their students’ willingness to study hard. Those who score low on the zhong kao or gao kao are regarded as lazy and can attend vocational schools.
As the end of my stay in China approached, I found myself sitting beside a colleague’s middle school student at a banquet. She was preparing for the zhong kao, and this was a few hours respite. She eagerly talked about her studies and the review she was doing for chemistry and algebra and physics—topics we do not yet cover at her level in America. When the banquet was over, she had to return home to study until midnight, as she also did on weekends.
She asked if we had big tests in America.
I told her that recently we had indeed begun massive testing. But the students did not study as hard as she did. And when students scored low, we blamed the teachers.