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  • Jamal Baig

“Tens of Thousands of Horses Across a Single Log Bridge”: China’s Gaokao

For American high schoolers, the 3-hour long SAT or ACT tests are quite possibly the most important test of their lives. Depending on one’s scores, this largely determines whether or not they will get into a prestigious college or university. However, there are many caveats - retakes, superscores, and, most recently, universities going test-optional all allow for some margin of error. Now, imagine the SAT, but on steroids. This super-SAT score takes 9 hours and is spread over two days; it almost entirely determines the college you will go to, and even is a factor in job prospects decades later. And—you can only take it once a year. You have one chance, along with everyone else, to prove yourself to universities.


For students in China, they don’t have to imagine such a test. This is the notorious gaokao (高考, “the big test’). Millions of students take the test every June, and the final result—a 3-digit test score—could not be more important. Colleges use this score to determine entry (not only Chinese universities—many western universities accept gaokao), firms will factor in this score when hiring applicants, and some parents will even use the score as an indicator of their marriage eligibility. For many, the gaokao is simply a 3-digit score that will almost single-handedly determine the course of one’s career. A Chinese saying aptly describes the gaokao as a rush of “thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses across a single log bridge.” However, this test is still an incredible opportunity for China’s lower and middle classes—this provides millions of low-income students a chance to attend a top university and ultimately move up the social ladder. Such social mobility is something that China prides itself on.


As one can imagine, the stakes could not be higher for Chinese students. Starting in middle school, students study tirelessly to ace the test, going to cram school and hiring private tutors. Viral pictures on Chinese media show students in hospitals studying for the gaokao up to 15 hours a day, sometimes even when connected to an IV drip or oxygen mask. In 2021, the private tutoring industry ballooned to $120B; families will spend massive amounts of money to insure their children do well on the gaokao. This has created a huge inequality between richer, urban students and poorer, rural students. With more disposable income, urban students are able to spend more time in classrooms, whereas the poorer rural students are often limited by budgets and other constraints.


Recently, China implemented its “Double-Reduction” policy, which effectively bans after-school tutoring. Aimed at reducing the amount of work students have to do, proponents say the policy is a step in the right direction in reducing the stress students face with the gaokao. Previously, students would finish their regular high school, and then go spend another 3-5 hours in a cram school or with private tutors, and afterwards finally go home to finish homework and then finally rest. Such a system is highly detrimental to students’ health: in past decades, studies have shown that over a quarter of Chinese youth suffer from depression and over half from myopia (nearsightedness, in this case attributed to spending too much time looking at electronic screens or studying in dimly-lit environments). The Double-Reduction policy, supporters claim, would help in lightening the workload students face. Without having to go to cram school, this instantly frees up up to 5 hours of the students’ day for other activities of their choice.


Conversely, critics say the policy does little to actually address the root of the issue. With the entire cram school industry effectively put out of business, critics maintain that the industry will be forced underground and become a tutoring black market, in which only the wealthy will be able to hire private, one-on-one tutors. Instead, critics maintain that an entire overhaul of the gaokao is needed. A single test, they say, should not be the determining factor of one’s life: rather, a holistic and comprehensive series of evaluations should be looked to as a healthier alternative. Additionally, vocational schools should be invested in as an alternative to traditional universities and be less stigmatized in Chinese society.


Time will tell whether or not the Double-Reduction policy is effective. But across the world, trends have shown that long, purely academic tests are becoming less and less popular. Largely fueled in part by the new generation’s frustrations with the ineffectiveness of such tests, the new wave of educational advocates have begun pushing for less stressful educational systems and more emphasis on things like mental and physical health. Such a shift shows many societies’ re-evaluations of what they deem important in life. Hopefully, these re-evaluations result in only the best for students.


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