This summer, UK school kids took to social media howling in protest at a particularly difficult set of problems featured in their recent exam papers.
In early June pupils taking the Edexcel maths GCSE complained that the paper accelerated in difficulty halfway through, with some questions they found all but impossible to answer.
Only a week later it emerged that the A-level physics paper was so challenging that over 100 students wrote to the board to complain. It was subsequently discovered that the question in particular even contained a mistake.
Although many UK papers reported on the students’ exam concerns, the level of interest pales in comparison with China’s focus on the exam hall. Every summer the latest generation of Chinese students undertakes the National College Entrance Examination — or gaokao (pronounced gow-kow).
Performance in the gaokao is considered make-or-break for a student’s life chances and pressure from parents and the wider society is intense. It determines which university students get into, a matter that’s considered to determine the course of the rest of their lives.
It’s common for parents to hover anxiously outside the exam halls as they wait for their children to finish. So seriously is the test taken by the nation that construction sites near examination centres are ordered to down tools and roads are blocked by police.
Although China’s exam halls are well scrutinised to prevent cheating, stories will always emerge of the latest audacious scams. Some students try taking to exam in different parts of the country, as some parts of northern China are considered to have an easier gaokao. There have also been reports of students paying brainier substitutes to take their exam papers for them. To combat exhaustion during final revision, some schools go to extreme lengths such as hooking students up to IV drips delivering amino acids into their bloodstreams to maintain stamina during gruelling revision periods.
Testing as a fundamental part of culture
Testing is a core part of China’s education system and to some extent its social culture. Western businesses doing any kind of training with a Chinese team are advised that participants will expect to be tested and ranked for performance at the end of the training period. Whilst countries such as the US and UK have moved away from testing and rote learning to some extent, and certainly in early classroom years, it’s still a major part of China’s kindergarten experience.
Even within China there’s a recognition that the approach focused on testing and ranking pupils for performance, and rote learning, is stifling to creativity but it tends to be the case that Chinese parents demand more rather than less testing.
When Shanghai municipalities stipulated limitations on the amount of homework set and a mandatory hour of daily physical activity, in some areas this only resulted in a few half hearted playground stretches before pupils trooped back to the classroom.
Part of the reason China is so attached to testing is that the entire education system is organised using ranking, with all educational institutions and staff including teachers and school administrators also ranked according to how well their pupils perform in exams.
Testing is one of the main ways China assess value in its educational system and its educators. This leads to selection problems as disadvantaged students are excluded by schools wanting to improve their rankings.
India’s similar approach
India takes a similar high-pressure approach to education, with many student suicides linked to the exam culture. But India’s education system fares poorly when compared to other countries.
Malnutrition and gender inequality all contribute to abysmal performance in the global educational league tables and there’s also great inequality based on family income.
Standards are generally pretty low in the Indian schooling system with little concern for curriculum or even whether teachers turn up at all. Like China, India is also wondering whether it has an educational system or rather merely an exam system. The Indian PM’s own scientific advisor publicly asked him “When will young people stop taking exams and do something worthwhile?”
There’s also a lack of insistence on standards:
Does testing work?
When pupils worldwide are tested in their abilities in core subjects like maths and science, Chinese students appear to come out on top, outperforming those in countries such as the US. Their Indian counterparts, also intensively-tested, rank extremely low in the same international comparisons.
But some accuse the Chinese of excluding less able students from these rankings. China’s strict residency requirements mean pupils of internal or international migrants are often excluded from participation in the gaokao or the entire educational system.
There’s also a tendency for wealthier families to send their children to crammers to improve their performance. The quality of education varies widely across the country, with hugely different teacher salaries and class sizes. It’s also the case that disabled students often have trouble accessing education at all.
But there are drawbacks to the high pressure approach and there are always reports of suicides around exam time in both India and China. Long periods studying indoors, and little time spent in sunlight, results in damage to childrens’ eyes.
Around 20-30% of UK students are thought to be short sighted, and a similar proportion of Asians was thought to be prone to the problem. These days however around 90% of Chinese students leave school with the issue – a direct result of lifestyle factors that keep them studying indoors for long hours.
Ethnic groups moving to Shanghai, where education pressure is intense, see rapid rises in shortsightedness compared to the same ethnic population elsewhere.
It isn’t clear whether it’s the testing itself that produces results, or the fact that education is taken so seriously by society in general. What is clear is that around 9 million students do undertake the gaokao each year; a significant number of intensely schooled college students being churned out each year.
It’s argued however that the real issue is that China lacks enough places at high-quality educational institutions. Despite the construction of more university buildings, there aren’t as many good quality university places as there are students wanting them.
Whilst 9 million students undertook the gaokao in 2012, there were only 7 million university place available for them. It’s thought admission rates for those applying to a prestigious Chinese university are under 1%, whilst by comparison a prestigious US institution such as Harvard might see around 5% acceptance.
A lack of places is one of the reasons why many Chinese students choose to study abroad at university level. The other reason is that some parents want to avoid the stress of the gaokao for their children. The fact that many Chinese people place more on a degree qualification from an overseas university also demonstrates how Chinese further education is lacking – and indicates that not everyone considers the gaokao to be worth the bother.