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Don’t have a gaokao

Recently, Chinese high school students have completed their gaokao exam. Scores have been made available and students now know their prospects for college. There’s been a series of articles in the NYTs, Atlantic and other large mainstream American news sources talking about the gaokao. Let’s examine some of these these articles.

Edward Wong writing for the New York Times wrote a long piece about it in which he recycles many of the old saws about the Chinese education system. The title is “Test that can determine course of life in China gets a closer examination”. Wong takes that challenge upon himself to examine the exam. However, the title relies on the common conception among many people in the US that the Chinese education system heavily relies on tests but Wong claims in the title that this reliance is so strong it can determine “one’s course in life.” This seems (unsurprisingly) like hyperbole. Many factors determine one’s course in life, not juts a single test score in any society. This is true in the US and in China and in most countries. No where does Wong’s article give any statistics on how much influence the gaokao has on students life prospects. However, we know from sociology studies that in the US, the SAT test has a large predictability of people’s life prospects. But Wong offers no evidence that the gaokao is any more influential in determining (or in his words “setting the course” of) Chinese students life prospects but merely relies on suggestion.

Wong also can’t resist recycling the old saw that the Chinese education system as a whole including the gaokao is geared towards not creativity but “rote learning” or  “memorization.”

But debate appears to have grown more heated lately over the value of the gaokao (pronounced gow-kow). Critics say the exam promotes the kind of rote learning that is endemic to education in China and that hobbles creativity.

But again, evidence of this is not given but the claim relies on mere suggestion. What are the questions in the gaokao? Some sample questions are found in these sites (here, here and here). As you can see, many are open essay questions. They are not more ostensibly reliant on memory to answer than many SAT or ACT questions.

Sample question:

Old Ji is a railway security man and he works on a mountain. His job is to examine the railways to prevent the fallen stones and trees from affecting the trains. He salutes every time the train passes, and the train will honk its horn in return. What do these scenes remind of you?

That’s certainly not a question which relies on rote memorization. Many of the other sample questions I’ve seen are like questions which are open-ended essay questions. Of course, the gaokao also tests other abilities using multiple choice style questions. But the SAT and ACT and other subject tests which US high school students must take also requires knowledge of subjects that are learned through memory using multiple choice style questions. No evidence is given that the gaokao is anymore reliant on memorization to do well in than these other exams.

Wong makes additional factual errors and fallacies in his piece.

Peking University, among the most prestigious, does not release admission rates, but Mr. Zhong said on his television program that a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had one in 190 odds, or 0.5 percent. (Harvard had a 5.9 percent acceptance rate this year.)

This seems to be a case of innumeracy and a case of the  fallacy of false comparison. The stats he gives of admission to the prestigious Peking University cannot be compared with Harvard’s admission rates because this seems to be a case of comparing apples to oranges. In the case of the figure given for Peking, it is the overall “chance” of a student getting admission to Peking from the respective places but the stats for Harvard are for the admission for applicants (i.e., percentage of people who applied to Harvard who then got in).  At minimum, Wong fails to give adequate support that the two cited stats are comparable (that is, of the rate of admission among applicants).

Wong makes additional unsupported and sensationalistic claims such as

Of course, children of senior Communist Party members, government leaders and prominent businesspeople have their own back channels to admission, a phenomenon that exists, too, in the West, though perhaps not to the same degree.

We know that in the US, children of rich people, alumni and celebrities are given huge advantages in the admissions process. Many admission policies function as de facto affirmative action programs for wealthy whites. See here for an excellent book on this topic. I seriously doubt that the Chinese college admissions process is as biased in privileging the already privileged as the US system. In any case, Wong offers no evidence again for this claim.

In the  end of the article, of course, Wong cannot resist the temptation to mention how sneaky and prone to cheat Chinese people are.

Each year, cheating scandals become the talk of China. One common tactic was for students to give their identification cards to look-alikes hired to take the test; later, many provinces installed fingerprint scanners at test centers.

Another common saw leveled at the gaokao is that it is “difficult.” One sensationalistic article claims that the SAT test is “nothing compared” to the gaokao in difficulty (or makes the SAT look like a “game of scrabble“). But the gaokao is a standardized test like the SAT. It makes little sense to call such tests “difficult” because they are essentially graded on a curve. It’s not the test’s questions that provides the ultimate hurdles for students, it’s other students.

“Grueling” (or its cognates) is also an adjective that is commonly used to describe the gaokao. However, the SAT now takes 4.5 hours to complete and many students must also take the ACT (a comparably lengthy and grueling test) and other exams for good college admission prospects. Total testing for all these tests often takes place over several days.

Helen Gao at the Atlantic also chimes in about the gaokao.

China’s gaokao-style education system has been great at imparting math and engineering, as well as the rigorous work ethic that has been so integral to China’s rise so far. But if the country wants to keep growing, its state economists know they need to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, neither of which is tested for on this life-determining exam.

This is an incredibly stupid comment. It assumes that engineering and math are not creative disciplines when in fact they are among  the most creative. It relies on old stereotypes of engineering and mathematics without knowledge of what these disciplines are actually about. Many if not most of the patents in society are from engineers or other people in the STEM disciplines. Furthermore, China’s education system, as one famous educator has explained, does educate people on creativity. In fact, it takes creativity to do well on the PISA exams because it is designed to measure creative problem solving skills as he explained and it was not long ago that China showed the world that their education system blows the rest of the world away on the PISA.

To bolster her case that Chinese society is not creative Gao says

They hope to see an educated workforce, rather than toiling on factory floors or sitting in the cubicles of Western companies’ Chinese branches, found their own businesses or brands that will sell to domestic as well as international buyers. They want domestic moviegoers to stop purchasing bootleg DVDs of Western blockbusters, and for foreign viewers to start raving about Chinese films. But the nation’s education system, instead of channeling the youthful energy of China’s next generation, seems to be blocking it.

Again, she is confused.This time she confuses popularity in art (her example here is film) with its creativity. Chinese film makers are as creative as anyone else. In fact, the best Chinese film makers are better than the best western film makers in my honest opinion.

As further evidence that China’s education system is not effective at producing creative people, Gao then says

China needs a generation of entrepreneurs to develop a more innovative economy, its national leaders know, but a recent report found that only 1.6 percent of Chinese college graduates started businesses last year, the same as the year before.

But she fails to give any stats on the number of US college graduates who started businesses last year.  Gao acknowledges that US college system is excellent at inculcating creativity but, by that measure, we are not given any data that they fare better than Chinese grads.

There maybe many legitimate criticisms of the Chinese education system and the gaokao more specifically but the criticisms leveled at it by these journalists seems to be wholly based not on facts and sound reasoning but on flimsy stereotypes and dismissive, superficial glances. Many Chinese students will have great careers and advance society with low gaokao scores. Likewise, many who do well will not have influential careers and not advance society. It is an aspect of the Chinese society but not the only or even most important aspect. Talking about the gaokao in the west seem to be not an exercise in analysis of the defects and strengths of the Chinese education system but an exercise in making westerners feel better about their own.

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  1. July 22nd, 2012 at 08:32 | #1

    These journalists are buffoons, probably no better than most high school graduates.

    I used to say, why don’t they simply go to China and see what the Chinese graduates are doing in terms of creativity. But then I realize, those journalists working for the same papers inside China write exactly the same garbage and offer the same narratives.

  2. July 22nd, 2012 at 08:40 | #2

    I should also point out that there is a natural tension between the state and corporations. Corporations want graduates to be fully ready to work in jobs, and thus, they’d prefer the education system to always ‘better’ prepare the students. Corporations do not want to spend time for job training and bear such costs.

    So, there is a natural tension in how much students are prepared before entering the work force; government and corporations press each other to do more.

  3. July 22nd, 2012 at 11:49 | #3

    Here is an actual list of exam papers:

    Some highlight of funny questions (not sure about the authenticity though)

    My conclusion is that GaoKao actually requires a lot of creative thinking and logic even on the science and math subjects. However, it is way “too demanding” for the average students.

    Also, from my observation those who do really well academically usually end up as engineers, doctors, attorneys and professionals who worked for large corporations. Usually those who start own business are those who are less academically successful. I believe the same is true in the US and China.

  4. July 22nd, 2012 at 14:46 | #4



    I think that is a satire site like the Onion.

  5. July 22nd, 2012 at 17:00 | #5

    I know(hence I gave the actual exam), but they do publish gem like this


    Tibet Correspondent

    LHASA (China Daily Show) – Self-immolating monk Thangka Phuntsok says he’s packing in the fireworks, after his last conflagration failed to attract a single AP journalist.

    The 23-year-old auto-arsonist dramatically sacked veteran publicist Cliff Hyde from his hospital bed on Monday night.

    Phuntsok says Hyde dramatically misled him when he advised that setting himself alight on a crowded Lhasa street last week would bring worldwide media attention to the plight of the Tibetan people.

    “I asked to see the clippings afterwards,” said a heavily sedated Phuntsok, currently recuperating in the serious clerical-burns unit at the No 3 Hospital of the University of Lhasa Medical College.

    “Cliff handed me a press release from a one-man Hong Kong human rights operation,” Phuntsok recalled. “I nearly choked on my hospital food – unfortunately, I was being fed via a drip.”

    Terminating his five-year contract with the Lhasa-based PR agency Duq & Hyde, Phuntsok expressed his appreciation for the firm’s efforts, but warned that, when a flaming fireball protest in China couldn’t make global headlines, “something has gone horribly wrong.”

    Phuntosk’s was the latest in a seemingly unending wave of recent Tibetan self-immolations, aimed at bringing an end to government interference in the Buddhist religion and returning the exiled Dalai Lama to his rightful place.

    But the protests have gone largely unnoticed – due in part to a security crackdown that prevents journalists from covering them. Without graphic and iconic images, publicists like Hyde say they’re hamstrung.

    “On one side, you’ve got a country whose diplomatic clout means that foreign countries no longer exert the same pressure they once did over Tibet,” explained Hyde from his office. “On the other, you’ve got all this Bo Xilai stuff. It’s hard to compete with a plotline from Game of Thrones.”

    “The situation has changed,” agreed Beijing-based PR guru Bill Lee. “These days, simply turning yourself into a fireball isn’t enough. If you want to get the press corps out of Jianguomen, you can’t just be an activist – you need to be a blind activist, who’s able to leap walls and crash embassy parties.”

    Phuntsok said he now planned to launch a microblog to publicize future flame-ups and monitor his own campaign for justice.

    “When you consider how much gasoline prices have risen,” Phuntsok croaked from behind cracked and charred lips, “it might be cheaper just to do my own publicity.”

    His next move will be an online survey, asking netizens to vote on self-cremation, entitled simply ‘Hot or Not?’

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