What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao

I didn’t intend to write about the gaokao, or Brook Larmer ‘s profile of 18-year-old Yang and his family inside Chinese test prep factory. I just started out googling, as is my wont, to find out more information than the article provides. I certainly did that.

The novice might find Larmer’s article emotionally draining. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese academic culture will notice a huge, gaping hole.

I noticed the hole, which led me to an observation, which led me to a better understanding of how the gaokao works, which is almost exactly the opposite of its presentation in the American press.

The hole: In a story dedicated to students preparing for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (aka the gaokao) Larmer never once mentions cheating. This would be a problematic oversight in any event, but given the last anecdote, the omission strains credulity.

When Larmer returned to the town for his second visit, the day before the gaokao, Yang’s scores, which had been dropping, had not improved. As a result, Yang had kicked out his mom and brought his grandfather to live with him in Maotanchang for the last few weeks of prep. While Larmer drove into town with Yang’s parents, the grandfather refused to let Larmer accompany the family to the test site. Grandpa was afraid the family might “get in trouble” for talking to a reporter, according to “someone”.

Yang does exceptionally well, given his fears—“his scores far surpassed his recent practice tests”. Sadly, his friend Cao tanks because he “had a panic attack”.

Yang’s scores were considerably beyond what his recent performance had predicted. Yet it apparently never once occurred to Larmer that perhaps Yang and Grandpa prudently got the New York Times reporter out of the way before they arranged a fix. Maybe Yang wanted more aid than could be provided with “‘brain-rejuvenating’ tea”, or Gramps didn’t want Larmer to see Yang wired up for sound, or that he’d really put in some money and paid for a double.

Yang’s performance might have been entirely unaided, of course. But any article about the gaokao should address cheating, even with Gramps banning access.

When I realized that Larmer hadn’t mentioned cheating, I read the piece again, thinking I must have missed it. Nope. But that second readthrough led to an observation.

I got curious—just curious, nothing skeptical at this point—about the school’s gender restriction on teachers. Was that just for cram schools? What was the gender distribution of Chinese teachers?

I couldn’t find anything. No confirmation that the teacher were all male, no comprehensive source on cram schools, no readily available data on Maotanchang. I couldn’t find anything at all about the school’s business practices online. So I went back to Larmer’s paper to look for a source for that fact—and nothing.

And so, the observation: In his description of the school’s interior and practices, Larmer doesn’t mention interviews with school representatives, other journalism, or a Big Book of Facts on Chinese Cram Schools.

The earliest detailed description of Maotanchang online appears to be this August 2013 article in China Youth Daily, a Beijing paper, which created quite a furor in China and largely ignored here because we can’t read Chinese. Rachel Lu, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, restated some key points for those folks who don’t read Chinese, which is nice of her, because what idiot would copy and paste the Chinese piece into Google Translate?

Yeah, well, I’m an idiot. I won’t bore people with the extended version, but a lot of the details that Larmer didn’t seem to personally witness show up in the Chinese story: same school official quoting management theory, teachers using bullhorns, Maotanchang’s 1939 origins, bus license plates ending in 8, burning incense at the town’s sacred tree, teacher dismissals for low scores.

The excitement over the China Youth Daily article generated more interest, like Exam Boot Camp, also written in August 2013, happily in English, which profiled a female student and her mother who provide data points like higher prices for lower scoring students ,lack of electrical outlets, and surveillance cameras in the classroom.

Am I accusing Larmer of lifting tidbits from these other stories? Well, I’d like to know where he got the information.

Leave that aside, though, because reading through these stories looking for sources led me to all sorts of “new things” to learn about the gaokao. These “new things” are readily available online; in fact, anyone can find most of the information in the Wikipedia entry. But you will rarely read these not-in-fact new things, but well-established facts, explicitly laid out by any major media outlet (although now that I know, I can see hints). I don’t know why. I can’t even begin to see how any reporter wouldn’t trumpet these facts to the world, narrative or no.

China’s supposedly meritocratic test is a fraud.

To begin with, Larmer, like just about any other reporter discussing the gaokao, describes it as a “grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities.”

Wrong. The test score is, technically, the sole criterion for admission. But in China, the test score and the test performance aren’t the same thing.

Testers get additional points literally added to their scores for a number of attributes. China’s 55 ethnic minorities (non-Han) get a boost of up to 30 points , although the specific number varies by province. Athletic and musical certifications appear to be in flux, but still giving some students more points, even though the list of certification sports culled from 70 to 17. Children whose parents died in the military and Chinese living overseas get extra points, and recently the government announced point boosts for morality.

Remember when the University of Michigan used to give students 20 points if they were black, and 12 points if they had a perfect SAT score? Well, imagine those points were just added into the SAT/ACT score. That’s what the Chinese do.

But even after the extra points are allotted, test scores aren’t relevant until the tester’s residence has been factored in. Larmer: “The university quota system also skews sharply against rural students, who are allocated far fewer admissions spots than their urban peers.”

I first understood this to mean that colleges used the same cut scores for everyone, but just accepted fewer rural students, without grasping the implications: city kids have lower cut scores than rural kids.

Xu Peng, the only Maotanchong student to make the cut off score for Tsinghua, where the “minimum score for students from Anhui province taking the science exam was 641.”

Two years earlier, the cutoff score for Tsinghua for a Beijing student was somewhere under 584.

Rachel Lu again:” the lowest qualifying score for a Beijing-based test-taker may be vastly lower than the score required from a student taking the examination in Henan or Jiangsu. [rural provinces]. ”

A joke goes:

Of course, don’t make the mistake, as I did, of thinking the cut scores mean the same thing for each student.

Curious about the nature of the studying/memorization the students do (another vague area for Larmer’s piece), I tried to find more information on the gaokao content. The actual gaokao essay questions are usually published each year and they’re….well, insane.

When I finally did find an an actual math question:


it seemed surprisingly easy and then, I realized that it was only for the Beijing test:


Then I went back to the essay questions and it sunk in: the essay questions differed by city.

The gaokao isn’t the same test in every province. Many provinces develop their own custom test and just call it the gaokao.


At which point, I threw up my hands and mentally howled at Larmer, my current proxy for the mainstream American press: you didn’t think this worth mentioning? Or didn’t you know?

If all this is true, then the wealthier province universities use a lower cut score for their residents. But just to be sure, some provinces make an easier test for their residents, so that the rural kids are taking a harder test on which they have to get a higher score. Please, please, please tell me I’m misunderstanding this.

Consider Larmer’s story again in light of this new information. Larmer can’t say definitively who had the best performance without ascertaining whether Yang or Cao got extra points. Both Yang and Cao might both have outscored many students who were admitted to top-tier universities. Cao may or may not have “panicked”, and may not have even done poorly, in an absolute sense. None of this context is provided.

In my last story about Chinese academic fraud, I pointed out that so much money was involved that few people have any incentive to fix the corruption. All the people bellyaching about the American test prep industry should pause for a moment to think about the size of the gaokao enterprise. The original China Youth Daily story focused on Maotanchang’s economic transformation, something Larmer also mentions. Parents are paying small fortunes for tutoring, for cheating devices, for impersonators, for bribes for certificates. All of these services have their own inventory supply chains and personnel. Turn the gaokao into a meritocratic test and what happens to a small but non-trivial chunk of the Chinese economy?

But I’m just stunned at how much worse the Chinese fraud is than I’d ever imagined.

Sure, well-connected parents could probably bribe their kids into college. Sure, urban kids who had better schools that operated longer with educated teachers would likely learn more than those stuck with “substitutes”. Sure, the content was probably absurd and has little relationship to actual knowledge. Sure, the tests were little more than a memory capacity game, with students memorizing essays as well as facts that had no real meaning to them. Without question the testers were engaging in rampant cheating.

But not once had I considered that the test difficulty varied by province, that some kids got affirmative action or athletic points added directly to their score, and worst of all, that a kid from Outer Nowhere who scored a 650 would have no chance at a college that accepted a kid from Beijing with a 500.

Once again, I am distressed to realize that my cynical skepticism has been woefully inadequate to the occasion.

The gaokao isn’t a meritocracy. Millions of kids who live in the wrong province are getting screwed by a test whose great claim to fame is that it will reward applicants strictly by merit. And of course, the more kids who apply to college, the more cut scores and test difficulty will increase–but only for those students from those wrong provinces. Meanwhile, the kids from the “right” provinces have a (relatively) easy time.

In this context, the 2013 gaokao cheating riot takes on a whole new light. If you really want to feel sad, consider the possibility that Yang’s friend, Cao, now working as a migrant, might have scored higher on a harder test than a rich kid in Shanghai.

By the way, could someone alert Ron Unz?

*Note: in the comments, someone who understands this is (bizarrely, to me) fussed over my use of the “rural/urban” paradigm. I was using the same construct that Brooke Larmer and others have. The commenter seems to think it makes a difference. My point is simpler, and I don’t think obscured for non-Chinese readers. But I caution anyone that I’m utterly unfamiliar with Chinese geography.


About educationrealist

41 responses to “What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao

  • E.

    The responses to the essay questions are pretty interesting. I think I found some discussion of them on collegeconfidential (can’t find the link). Apparently, an essay response is supposed to have quotes from various authors proving whatever the prompt was asking for. The sample I saw was just a collection of platitudes. There’s no discussion, argument, critical thought. It’s as if the SAT had a medieval scholasticism section.

  • anon

    some provinces make an easier test for their residents, so that the rural kids are taking a harder test on which they have to get a higher score. Please, please, please tell me I’m misunderstanding this

    Well, these are two bad things, but they’re not any worse together than either would be alone. Some areas have much higher cut scores than other areas, because the universities bucket applicants by their region of origin — this is affirmative action by region, a practice that goes back several centuries in China, and it means that the fact that different regions use different tests is completely irrelevant to who gets admitted. Everyone you’re competing for admission with has to take the same test you take; the actual difficulty is based on the number of admission slots available compared to the college-applying population of your region. To say it again, the difficulty of the test, in this system, has no effect on who gets admitted to which colleges. The effect of different tests is restricted to making it difficult to compare scores from one region to scores from another region. It’s brutally difficult to be admitted to a top-tier university if you’re from shandong, not because the cutoff score is so high, but because shandong has a huge population but comparatively few admission slots. The high cutoff score is determined by the population / admission ratio.

    Because of personal interest, I’ve made a minor habit of asking chinese college students how they got to be in the college they’re in. My sample so far is two students from 复旦大学 (fudan daxue, or Fudan University), immensely prestigious and generally considered the #3 school in China, and three students from 财经大学 (caijing daxue, or ShangHai University of Finance and Economics), similarly prestigious but only offering finance and economics-related majors. Results are as follows:

    Fudan: one student reported that she took the shanghai gaokao, scored high enough for fudan but not for a better school, and applied to fudan. The other one was more interesting. She attended a prestigious high school (the high school affiliated to shanghai jiao tong university), and was recommended by the high school administration to a department at fudan. This got her an interview with that department, and their favorable recommendation meant that she could be admitted to that department with a gaokao score below the normal admission cutoff.

    Cai da: two students reported admission in the normal way — they took their regional gaokao, got a score which qualified them for cai da but not for a more selective school, and applied to cai da. (If you’re wondering how chinese students seem to know in advance whether their score is good enough, it’s because chinese universities publish their cutoff scores of last year. There is variation year-to-year, but it’s fairly small.) The third took cai da’s own test and qualified for admission, then, knowing she could go to cai da, blew off the gaokao and got a score that wouldn’t admit her to any respectable school, forcing her to matriculate to cai da.

    You’re using a funny conflation of “rural” in the american sense of “the sticks, where no respectable person would live” (for china, this is xinjiang) and “rural” meaning “there are farmers here”. Shandong isn’t Outer Nowhere, it’s a center of chinese culture, and it’s big — it contains millions of urban kids. Quoting the beginning of the wikipedia article, “Shandong has played a major role in Chinese history from the beginning of Chinese civilization … and served as a pivotal cultural and religious site for Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism. Shandong’s Mount Tai [泰山] is the most revered mountain of Taoism …. The city [!] of Qufu is the birthplace of Confucius, and was later established as the center of Confucianism.” The statistical sidebar tells us that shandong is an area of 157,000 square kilometers and 97 million people — compare to the apex of urbanity, shanghai, which is 6,340 square kilometers and 24 million people.

    Shanghai and Beijing are cities, and they’re also two of China’s four province-level cities — that is, there is no government above them other than the Chinese government. Shandong is a province, politically the equivalent of a province-level city, but it contains several cities of its own. If province-level city is what you mean when you say “urban kids”, be aware that the US is 100% rural; even NYC and LA, which a layman might have thought of as urban, are subject to the governments of New York state and California.

    Let’s read some more about Shandong! Quoth wikipedia: “[Shandong] is the largest agricultural exporter in China.” Hey, it’s rural! But wait, there’s more! “Shandong is one of the richer provinces of China, and its economic development focuses on large enterprises with well-known brand names. Shandong is the biggest industrial producer and one of the top manufacturing provinces in China.” “Shandong has extensive petroleum deposits”. “the city [!] of Qingdao is home to three of the most well-known brand names of China: Tsingdao Beer, Haier and Hisense.” “Shandong has also benefited from South Korean and Japanese investment and tourism, due to its geographical proximity to those countries.”

    the system appears to be structured so that cut scores and test difficulty for rural students will increase with each student who decides to try for college

    This is true. The same is true for urban students. And both are likewise true of college admissions in the US. I don’t get what you’re trying to say. When applicants go up and capacity doesn’t, schools get more selective.

    Finally, if you have questions about the gaokao, I’m happy to forward them to various chinese people that I know; I’d already learned all of what you report here except the ethnic minority score boosts through personal interest.

    • educationrealist

      I see “rural” used everywhere in US press on gaokao; I’m not going to be fussy about it.

      This is true. The same is true for urban students. And both are likewise true of college admissions in the US.

      Right. The US allocates 3 slots for Mississippi residents to go to college, then encourages them to apply for college each year, trying to drive up the numbers even though the accepted students will be selected randomly from those who got a perfect score. Meanwhile, Washington DC residents have a basement score of 1800 total.

      You’re right. We do this all the time. Can’t see why anyone would wonder why China is different.

      • anon

        In that example, note that the cut score for Mississippi residents does not rise with the number of applicants, because it’s already capped. Perfect scores essentially don’t occur on the gaokao, so that worry is inapt. (Also, different regional gaokaos have different score ranges, sort of like how you could be accepted to a US college on the basis of an SAT score in the 2000s or an ACT score way down in the 30s. This doesn’t have much meaning on its own, but confounds rhetorical flourishes like “student x was rejected with a 513, but student y only needed a 420”.)

        I see a lot of anguish over the US’s constant drive for more and more and more students to apply to college, so from that perspective it seems like we are doing whatever “this” is. Maybe you could elaborate on why you think the selective pressures are more nefarious in China? I remember a history of admission to harvard (which I didn’t read, but read reviews of) describing how harvard bucketed (um, “docketed”) applicants by geographic region, with each region getting approximately the same number of admissions — and “there was one docket for Exeter and Andover, another for the midwest” [quoted from memory]. That seems like a pretty fair description of the current Chinese system to me, with an even heavier emphasis on preference for local students, and I don’t think the American public responded with outrage. Things are probably better on that front today, but (a) I tend to suspect that they’re not all the way there toward geographic blindness yet, and (b) it seems a little harsh to describe Chinese universities in terms like “I’m just stunned at how much worse the Chinese fraud is than I’d ever imagined”, when they’re using the same system Harvard used 50 years ago. This system of gaokaos isn’t there to punish rural kids (and isn’t even succeeding at punishing rural kids — on reviewing your piece, I notice that you only mention Shandong in repeating a Chinese joke, but it’s there in the joke because it is infamous in china for how brutally selective college admissions are if you’re from Shandong — but remember, Shandong is now over half urban). Instead, the system of gaokaos is there to give some advantages to students from beijing, who deserve them 😉 , and more generally to students who are local to wherever the college is.

        In fact, affirmative action in China began as a way to get more northerners in government jobs when southerners kept doing better on the civil service exams, so many centuries ago. The northerners were felt to be more morally worthy, so quotas were instituted.

        and to conclude this comment, I want to deliberately contrast the closing paragraph of your article, which focuses heavily on how rural kids are getting screwed over every which way, with your sentiment of “I’m not going to be fussy about what ‘rural’ means”. The systems you’re pillorying for screwing over “rural” students are basically blind to the urban-rural distinction. That doesn’t even sound relevant to you?

      • E.

        This discussion just perfectly exemplifies the stupefying nature of thinking or discussing the Chinese education system. To with, there is some collectivizing, dehumanizing policy or activity in China (in this case the gaokao, but it could be Chinese math instruction or the actions of Chinese agents sending tons of university students to the U.S.). It instinctively rubs someone familiar with the U.S. educational system the wrong way. Moreover, it creates a number of perverse incentives. But it’s been touted to be meritocratic, gets results, produces better students than the U.S., and be worth the way it distorts the educational system. When investigated, however, it turns out to be not just dehumanizing but also fundamentally corrupt and its benefits are questionable at best (did students learn anything studying for the gaokao; do Chinese students understand anything beyond what they memorized) raising the question of whether it was worth anything to begin with. When this is pointed out, analogous flaws are pointed out in the U.S. educational system. Comparisons of analogous flaws ensues.

      • Powerlurker

        The more important point is that the geographic quota aspect of the gaokao isn’t technically an urban/rural issue, it’s a local/outsider issue. The Chinese university system prioritizes local students being able to attend their local universities. This works out great if your local university happens to be Peking or Tsinghua, less so if you come from a province (or province-equivalent) less endowed with high quality institutions. Additionally, “cities” in China are quite large geographic entities that contain both urban and rural areas within their municipal jurisdictions (The City of Beijing covers 6,336 square miles with 5,807 of that being rural).

    • educationrealist

      I edited the paragraph slightly to make it clearer, although I still think you’re missing the point.

      • educationrealist

        “Perfect scores essentially don’t occur on the gaokao, so that worry is inapt.”

        There is no “THE” for the gaokao. There isn’t A gaokao. There are several. Which is kind of the point. That skates right over your head.

        “That doesn’t even sound relevant to you?”

        No, because this “I want to deliberately contrast the closing paragraph of your article, which focuses heavily on how rural kids are getting screwed over every which way”

        Is absolutely a bizarre way of reading it. SOME kids are getting royally screwed based on where they live. In the US, this is presented as rural vs. urban.

        You seem to think that I’m upset because they’re rural, when I’m upset because they’re screwed.

      • anon

        I understand that there are several different tests going under the name gaokao, I just don’t see the significance. You yourself refer to “the gaokao” constantly in your headline and article. But let me rephrase. I am given to understand that no one gets a perfect gaokao score, no matter where they take the test. This means that, in a stylized world, there’s no admission lottery; the top n students from any given province will get the top n admission slots for that province.

        I see you making two major points about the gaokao:

        1. Chinese universities use a geographic quota system to admit their students.

        2. Every geographic region in China potentially uses its own gaokao test. (In practice, most don’t, which is why you do see score comparisons across provinces.)

        and a minor point

        3. There are ethnic and athletic preferences incorporated into the gaokao score.

        I’m with you on (3) being a bad thing. I’m also with you on (1) and (2) being bad things, but I still don’t quite see why you think they’re outrageous or even unusual.

        Item (2) has no implications for any chinese student; it is of significance only to psychometricians and related researchers. (Note that the region in which you’re allowed to take the gaokao is fixed at birth; you can’t change it.)

        Item (1) has huge implications for chinese students, but it’s a very common sort of system — if (3) is the moral equivalent of the University of Michigan giving you extra admission points for being black, (1) is the moral equivalent of University of Michigan giving you extra admission points because you’re a Michigan resident. Is it an outrage if UC Berkeley gives admission preferences to California students?

        And even (3) isn’t really all that comparable to University of Michigan giving you 20 points for being black and 12 for a perfect SAT score. The Anhui science gaokao is cited as ranging up to at least 641. Assume 641 is the maximum score, and there are ethnic preferences for tibetans in the amount of 30 points (which you list as the largest possible ethnic preference), and athletic preferences also up to 30 points. That would make the highest possible score 581, so if the hypothetical Chinese University of Michigan and Anhui gave you 20 points for being Tibetan, it would be giving you 387 points for a perfect SAT score.

        As a side note, a lot of rich kids in Shanghai go abroad because they’re not eligible to take the Shanghai gaokao, and therefore can’t get admitted to any Chinese university. (It’s not totally clear to me why they don’t travel back to their home province for the gaokao, but I knew quite a few rich kids whose parents sent them abroad for that reason.)

        Your new conclusion,

        And of course, the more kids who apply to college, the more cut scores and test difficulty will increase–but only for those students from those wrong provinces. Meanwhile, the kids from the “right” provinces have a (relatively) easy time.

        doesn’t make sense to me. The more kids who apply to college, the higher the cut scores will go for the provinces they’re applying from. There’s no reason that couldn’t be Beijing and Shanghai, unless you believe that 100% of high school students in Beijing already apply to college, and that that’s a significantly higher proportion than obtains in the more competitive provinces. Personally, I would have guessed that drives to increase college applications would see proportionally greater results in major cities, where communicating to a lot of people at once is easy and it’s easier for credentialism to grow, but that’s pure armchair speculation on my part.

        From another perspective, I see the argument from time to time that the US shows falling average SAT scores over time because we keep pushing more and more kids to take the SAT so they can go to college. The theory goes that the smartest kids were taking the SAT anyway, before the drive. If anything like that is true in China, that would dramatically lessen the impact of further college applicants on the selectivity of admissions in top-tier schools; in theory, (almost) everyone who would qualify in the world where 100% of students apply to Tsinghua already qualifies now.

      • educationrealist

        ” I just don’t see the significance.”

        Yeah, not sure how I can help you there. First, you don’t appear to be bothered that the gaokao in this country is presented as meritocratic. Second, you seem to think I’m primarily outraged at China. Third, you seem ready to intellectually acknowledge that it’s unfair, but you don’t really get it.

      • anon

        Well, the gaokao is presented in the US as meritocratic because it is meritocratic; in particular, it’s much more meritocratic than most US college admissions. If you can’t quite get over your envy of your neighbor’s new car, can you be “a real Christian”, when it says right there in the ten commandments not to covet “anything that is thy neighbor’s”?

      • educationrealist

        No, it’s not meritocratic. That’s the big lie.

      • anon

        What is the standard, to you, that a system must meet before you describe it as meritocratic? The CSU admission system gives everyone a deterministic score, a simple function of SAT score and high school GPA. Then it applies one threshold to california residents and a higher one to non-california residents, and admits everyone who beats the threshold. That’s the entire system, and I would describe it as meritocratic for that reason — there’s an openly stated definition of “merit”, you know what yours is, and they admit top down based on that.

        Harvard uses “holistic admissions”. You apply to Harvard, burn some incense, sacrifice a goat, pour libations, and otherwise hope you’ll get in, because they’re certainly not telling you how they make the decisions. It is widely viewed as corrupt, which is impossible under the CSU approach. On the other hand, Harvard is undeniably getting better students. Who’s using the more meritocratic system?

  • anon

    Aha! A contact of mine reports that, according to statistics from 2012, 52% of the population of shandong was urban. Here’s the link to a short report: http://www.sdny.gov.cn/art/2012/12/31/art_39_327681.html .

    The title of that article, 山东省城里人口首超农村人口, translates roughly as “shandong province urban poulation first exceeds rural population”.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Very interesting. And something I’ve never seen elsewhere. That’s a big knock on the people who write about these things, and a big kudos to you.

  • KD

    E.’s comment is excellent (as was the original post).

    I’ve lived in China for years and while it is a difficult place to understand, it’s not helpful for so many ‘China guys’ like anon to insist on making things even more difficult. The usage of urban and rural is fine and perfectly clear for the point being made.

    And to the point about this kind of info about the gaokao not being common knowledge even the westerners who have been here a long time, often have NO IDEA what’s going on all around them. The language is hard and Chinese are smart and good at putting on a show in both minor and major things. The whole culture seems to be set up around NOT expressing things publicly. I’m only partially joking when I tell new arrivals here that they should start smoking since you’ll often learn more during a 5 minute break than during the 4 hour meeting you’re escaping from. So for many reporters and business people, the choice is between reporting the 4 hour meeting or the secretary letting you know some ugly, contradictory details. I don’t say it’s easy for them to decide which is more credible.

    And about their fundamental approach to transparency, my Chinese sister in law still gets mad at my wife for letting me know about problems within their family and we’ve been married for 10 years, imagine what stories people who show up for a few days get.

    China is full of smart and hard working people, and for better and worse they do and think about things differently than we do. There are certainly many things we can learn from them, but as this post points out, lets hold off a bit on assuming they’re doing something we should copy.

    • E.

      To KD, thanks for the kind words.

      To go slightly OT: I’m a professor in a STEM discipline at a university with a large Chinese undergraduate presence, and I’ve learned to be suspicious of any measure that could be gamed. I’d like to request that ed writes something about Chinese students at the university level. He must have heard some horror stories. This is something I discuss with a few select colleagues and so I don’t know much that is going on. Incidentally, the gaming of English language exams is something else. I had a very atypical Chinese student, definitely a weird kid who was talkative and extroverted, if somewhat inappropriate. And his English was quite good, certainly better than his mainlander classmates. And yet he told me that he was in danger of failing his ESL exam. I realized that he was too busy speaking English to learn what it took to game the exam. I thought back to when I read the application materials for a postdoc position from applicants from mainland China who had come to the US for grad school. They were in overly sophisticated, not quite idiomatic English. Probably more sophisticated than what I would have written. I know from experience that half of those applicants could probably only communicate verbally with difficulty. I would have honestly preferred something written at the sixth grade level in their authentic voices. The rest of their application was suspect based on the English alone.

      In my classes, I really want to make homework worth next to nothing because it is useless as a metric of learning and just give quizzes and exams with basic, free-response questions testing understanding. I haven’t done this enough to see what would happen, but it does seem to diverge from performance on more algorithmic problems. Certainly, professors have responded to the performance of the Chinese students by putting more complicated, fussy algorithmic problems on exams. This is moving in the wrong direction, in my opinion.

      ed, your post seems to put the lie to the thesis in Yong Zhou’s _Who’s Afraid of the Big Red Dragon_. He says that because China is such a corrupt, low-trust culture a standardized test, even a perversely incentivizing one, is the least bad option.

      • DensityDuck

        Re your last point: what ed is saying in this post is that the “standardized” gaokao is anything but.

      • anon

        You might note the figure in the article: 14 of 31 provinces use their own gaokao. I’ve been told that in practice almost everywhere uses one of three gaokaos. That’s not perfect standardization, but it’s also pretty far from “anything goes, and it’s hopeless to even try to draw any conclusions”.

      • E.

        Oh lord, I’m going to get suckered into playing the same game that my meta-comment outlined.

        The issue isn’t that the gaokao is advertised as a standardized test and that it isn’t perfectly standardized. It’s that it’s touted as the important-test-that-Chinese-students-spend-years-studying-for-and-is-descended-from-Chinese-civil-service-exams-and-is-meritocratic-not-like-US-college-admissions. But it’s not standardized. The cut-scores for the universities vary dramatically. IT ISN’T BECAUSE OF THE FLAWS IN THE EXAMS THAT WE’RE HAVING THIS DISCUSSION, IT’S THE DISHONESTY. And it extends to nearly everything that’s said about the Chinese education system. It’s not that there are flaws here and there, it’s that there’s turtles all the way down.

      • educationrealist

        How is that not obvious? All of his points strike me as very…off-key. And by the way, it’s not like America. We wouldn’t be allowed to have something like this in America. Thank heavens.

      • anon

        Well, fair enough. I’m much more interested in the gaokao for its own sake than I am in the feeling on the ground in the American educational reform movement, which I don’t really follow. I take it the “dishonesty” being criticized here is American ed reformers describing the gaokao in a way that the reality doesn’t live up to.

        That said, I still think that replacing the US college admissions system with the chinese college admissions system would be an improvement, as a general policy statement (I think society would be better off this way) and specifically in that it would increase the level of meritocracy in college admissions, in two senses: first, as defined earlier by me, to mean that there’s an objective standard that everyone understands, and also that this would segregate schools by intelligence more effectively than the current system. Two of those are just statements of my personal values, so I like to lean on the “objective standard” idea, which also has the benefit that you can talk about “meritocratic hiring” in, say, professional football without meaning that the smartest people get hired.

        Upthread I mentioned the (US) CSU admission system, which seems to be essentially identical to the admission system practiced by chinese colleges. You take a standardized test in high school, report your score and GPA to the school you’re applying to, and they transform those two numbers into a single merit score and stick you on the list for your geographic origin. Once all the applications are in, they use quotas to admit the top candidates from each list.

        What part of the gaokao system, defined broadly, wouldn’t be allowed in America?

      • educationrealist

        The gaokao isn’t a standardized test. And beyond that, I can’t see much point to discussing this with someone who doesn’t see the differences.

      • anon

        I thought we’d said that “[t]he issue isn’t that the gaokao is advertised as a standardized test and that it isn’t perfectly standardized”. If the answer to “the flaws in the test are minor” is “this isn’t about whether the test is imperfect, it’s about the inaccurate presentation of the whole system in US media”, then the answer to “I agree with the presentation in US media” can’t be “but the test is imperfect”.

        The idea of a standardized test is that the score allows you to draw conclusions about the testees. A test used in any one chinese province, let alone the one used in 17 of them, has more than enough population behind it to be useful. How many students take the gaokao in Shandong every year? How many students take the ACT in the same year?

        What part of the gaokao system wouldn’t be allowed in America?

      • Roger Sweeny

        “The idea of a standardized test is that the score allows you to draw conclusions about the testees.

        Is there a correlation (positive or negative) between test scores and the size of the testees? Enquiring minds want to know.

  • DensityDuck

    There’s likely an element of social control. If the gaokao for people close to the Imperial Palace is easier, then there’s an incentive to live near the Imperial Palace where the emperor can keep an eye on you and you don’t have the privacy needed to organize a revolution. If the people living far away can’t get good jobs because their gaokao is too hard, then they won’t be able to put together the resources to pull off a successful revolution.

    • Powerlurker

      It doesn’t have anything to do with that as Chinese people can’t just move to Beijing whenever they want. It’s about local students getting a preference when attending their local schools. How this works out practically is that the schools in highest demand are in Beijing and Shanghai which leaves the rest of China competing for the admissions slots that aren’t reserved for locals (who definitely aren’t knocking down the doors of the second-tier provincial universities).

  • Triumph104

    Harvard and the University of North Carolina are being sued for their admissions policies. Someone should send them a link to this article and the comments section.

  • Andrew Stallard

    “Dad, I got 330, send me abroad.”

    I was a physics and chemistry teacher at an international prep school in Hangzhou and these are the students I had to teach. Chinese parents seem to think Westerners are intellectually inferior and anything they can do Chinese can do better. Many students and their parents alike were a bit disappointed when their IGCSE & A-level scores were not what they expected.

    To add insult to injury, many parents threatened to sue the school because of its failure to get their not-so-studious child into Harvard, Cambridge or Yale.

  • bossel

    I’m not particularly fond of the Chinese education system, but from my own experience it seems as if the gaokao works at least to a certain degree. I’ve taught a few years at an elite university in Beijing & the students there on average are really better than those at 2nd or 3rd tier universities (where I taught before & after Beijing).

    There are exceptions among the students, but in general it seems that the best students actually will go to the better universities. The bigger problem I see is that even if they don’t perform at all they still get their bachelor degree. But I heard (!) that it’s harder to get a degree in non-language departments or at other universities.

    Beijing students were over-represented, yet I had students from all over China.

  • sean

    There are plenty of problems with the gaokao, but as for the main one you point out in this article: The gaokao is structured so that it’s easier for students from a particular province to go to college in that province. Therefore it’s easier for Beijing students to get into a Beijing university than those from outside Beijing (Beijing, along with 4 other cities, are on the same level as provinces). While perhaps unfair, it’s not much different than the US where state colleges favor students from their own states – not through admissions, but through subsidizing tuition. So, unless you’re from a well-to-do family, it’s easier for a student from California to attend UC than a student from Idaho. Since UC has a much higher reputation than U.Idaho, this could seem unfair. By the same token a student from Shandong wants to get into a Beijing or Shanghai university instead of one in Shandong. So students living in provinces with a highly ranked university – such as Beijing, Shanghai, and a few others (like the Zhejiang University it Hangzhou) – over “out of state” students.

  • Triumph104

    The University of San Francisco wants to admit Chinese students based only on their gaokao scores and an in-person interview in Beijing. I hope they tape the interview to ensure that the person they interviewed in Beijing is the same person who shows up for class in San Francisco.


  • 2015: Turning a Corner. Maybe. | educationrealist

    […] What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao highlights my ability to go deep and make a whole bunch of information digestible by the casual viewer–and got lots of traffic for my troubles. […]

  • AaNikola Marković

    I would just like to inform you that I’ve just been informed by a recent taker of the Gaokao that a new policy is in place where students from poor areas are able to get into better universities with lower scores than their wealthier peers. For example, a student from a poor area with a score of 580 has a chance to get into Peking University, Tsinghua University and Fudan University.
    If this is true, it would appear that the situation has been corrected. Great news!

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