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Gao Kao: The Biggest Problem with the Current Chinese Education System

Updated on July 17, 2012

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Introduction: What is the Gao Kao?

In Mandarin Chinese, "Gao" means tall or high, and "Kao" means test or exam. Put together, these two characters form the name for the college entrance exam, similar to the SAT or ACT in the U.S. I say similar in that they are taken at roughly the same time in a young adult's life- ie: shortly after graduating from high school; and are necessary to be admitted to any institute of higher education. That is where the similarities end, however.

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The Gao Kao Phenomenon

The Chinese education system as it is now places way too much emphasis on exam scores, to the detriment of the practical application of knowledge and well-rounded social skills. This is most evident in the "Gao Kao phenomenon". In China it's the high school students who are the most stressed out, over-worked basket cases, instead of students writing their Master's theses, like in the States. In China if you don't do well on the Gao Kao you have no future. Therefore the teaching methods in high school are geared toward rote memorization of facts to prepare the students for this college entrance exam. Every class is structured according to this reality. Students are trained to absorb the maximum amount of information on all subjects, without knowing what it means, or how to use it. Even if you try to bring a little group interaction or critical thinking into the high school classroom, the students resist it, and view it as a waste of time. Unfortunately, the way the system works now, they're right. An hour spent in the foreign language classroom having shopping dialogues with your classmate is silly when you have one week to memorize 75 new college-level English vocabulary words that will appear on the test that literally will change your entire life.

Colleges and universities are arranged in tiers in China. For example, if you want to even have a chance to apply to a tier one school, you need to exceed a certain score on the Gao Kao. If you don't do well enough, those schools are blocked to you, you can't even apply. Colleges and universities do not look at anything other than the Gao Kao qualifications, and there is only this one standardized exam for the entire nation. For example, if you wanted to go to Beijing University, and you scored one point below the requirement, they would not even accept your application, much less weigh the test score against your other achievements such as extra-curricular activities or high school GPA. There are no acceptable score ranges for entrance exams, either. You either test in, or you don't. For students in areas that only have tier one and two schools, this is especially frustrating, as lower scores prohibit them from choosing a school anywhere near their homes. In fact, the students don't choose the schools at all, their scores choose for them.

For students who exhibit test anxiety, this situation couldn't be any worse. Perfectly intelligent and capable students who bombed on the Gao Kao are forced to attend backwater country vocational colleges with poor infrastructure and little to no facilities or other equipment. I'm talking dorm rooms with 8-10 students, no A/C or heat, bad wiring, and no hot water; classrooms made of concrete with no electrical outlets or windows in the frames; a limited amount of textbooks, so that two students must share each one; class sizes of 50 or more students; no extracurricular facilities such as sports grounds or student newspapers; and teachers with no training or experience in their fields.

As well, this system is self-perpetuating. Students who attended high schools in poor areas such as these will never test out of their circumstances, no matter how smart they are, because their education was substandard to begin with.

The unbelievable pressure this puts on high school students is so immense, that one of the few solutions students can think of, unfortunately, is to cheat. This habit is started in high school, but gets infinitely worse in college, where students are complacent and lazy.

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What Does College Mean to Chinese Students?

To the average Chinese person, college means that you can get a degree, which will give you an edge in the cut-throat, competitive job market. This means you actually have a chance of finding a job other than garbage collector or cashier. With a college degree, you become a person of higher breeding/ status. You've won. (What they don't realize, however, is that most of the work toward a college degree is actually done in high school!) After the Gao Kao, if the students actually get into a college they breathe a sigh of relief, and use most of the time to enjoy the first freedom from their controlling parents and demanding teachers. They didn't have time to just be kids when in high school, so they use college time to do it. I think it's backwards to spend the formative years of your life memorizing factoids, and then not be prepared for the real world later. And it's so much worse for the students who fail to score into a college or university at all, because all they have to enter the job force with is E=mc2 and important dates in Qing dynasty history.

My college students are immature and impractical and cannot think for themselves, but their attitude is "The hard part's over, I'm in college now". For many students, college means that finally they have the time to pursue romantic relationships. Most students at the age of nineteen have never had a boyfriend or girlfriend before. College students in China for the most part are stunted and shy. It's difficult to teach them because they still behave like children (ie; passing notes in class, looking off each other's papers, traveling in cliques, and being waaay too interested in Justin Bieber to be healthy) but the subject matter is academic.

I try to re-educate my students by showing them that college is a place to learn new things and make mistakes, apply their knowledge and do experiments, have discussions and debates, and practice being a grown-up before they go out into the world and have to communicate and solve problems for themselves. Many of them do not know how to learn. I know that sounds strange, but in high school they are only taught one study method: repeat and repeat and repeat until you have it memorized. That does not work for people of different learning types (ie; visual/spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal) or for different subjects, such as foreign language, journalism, psychology, and more. It's a constant struggle for me against what has been pounded into their heads by their other teachers. An example: All of my students can conjugate every single English verb you throw at them, but cannot for the life of them use it in a sentence. Because in high school, all they had to do was sit in their chairs and repeat "Am, Are, Is, Was, Were. Am, Are, Is, Was, Were." What's the point in actually using this in a sentence, right? It's not on the Gao Kao...

I'm In College, What Do I Do Now?

The main goal in college for most Chinese students is to not fail out. They all sacrificed their childhoods to get to university in the first place, so you have students who chronically slack off because they're busy being teenagers (albeit 4 or 5 years late). Then they are constantly bombarded with unemployment statistics that tell them all their hard work is for nothing- they still don't have a chance in hell of going anywhere or doing anything with their lives, and there comes the phase around the middle of sophomore year where they just give up. They take the easy way out, which is: Listen, pass the tests, don't put forth any more effort than you possibly have to, and get your diploma so you can find a job.

In China the diploma is all that matters. Employers don't ask for college transcripts. If you passed each class with a 60, it doesn't matter- you still get that degree. With an unemployment rate around 9% (that's approx 126 million people nationwide competing for jobs) that is basically what college is for, nothing more. So to most students, college is the final four years of relaxation and playtime before they have to get serious. They don't want to study, and they use the same tools they were given in high school to pass their college courses: memorize what you can (in the spare time between going on dates, drinking with friends and playing online), and what you can't memorize, just copy. I have never seen such blatant cheating and plagiarism in my life as I do teaching university students in China. I give a class of thirty-five kids a homework assignment, and ten to fifteen papers will be exactly the same, word for word. I ask an opinion question, and students will copy out of their textbooks. They bring Xeroxed class materials to final exams, and don't even bother hiding them!

Of course, university policies all say that cheating and plagiarism will be punished, but they never are. Why not? Because teachers are evaluated based on the students' performance on exams, and they'd quite prefer to give their students any extra edge possible to increase their scores so they (the teachers) can keep their jobs. Most Chinese teachers let it slide and don't report incidents of cheating and/or plagiarism- to them it's not a big deal. I've reported it before to my superiors and gotten lukewarm responses filled with rhetoric, but nothing more. The Dean of the Foreign Language Department, upon my report of a student using banned materials during a final exam, urged me not to give the student a zero on the exam, and suggested that I just "have a talk" with them. The student was even allowed to retake the exam at a later date. They failed the exam, because I didn't allow them to use anything but a pen. (Obviously the student had not studied at all.) And the department allowed this student to take the exam a third time, one year later! This was all according to university policy, I'm told. If a student fails a class, they are to be given a "make-up final" at the beginning of the next semester. If they fail that as well, they are to be given another "make up exam" at the beginning of the next semester after that. If that one is also failed they have the option of taking yet another make up right before graduation. The catch is, each one of these "makeup exams" has to be written, administered, graded, and submitted by the teacher of that class. Most Chinese teachers realize the insurmountable task that would entail if they continued to be "stubborn" like me and fail students who didn't get above a 59%. Quite frankly, they aren't getting paid any extra, so why do it? Therefore all their students magically pass every class every time. It really IS impossible to fail a class at a Chinese college.

In China, college really is a breeze. It's playtime. Not even cheating will get you expelled. The teachers are pushovers. You're in. There's nothing new that you haven't already memorized in high school, right? As long as you get that degree, you'll be handed a job. You can learn how to do the job once you get it- relax now, while you still have the chance! That's what college is for!

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The Solution

The "Gao Kao phenomenon" (where the only thing that matters is the end result, not how you got there) is so pervasive throughout the Chinese education system that it even extends past college. First, your life choices all boil down to what your score is on that test because that's the only thing that colleges look at, so high school is spent memorizing the answers. Once you get to college, the only thing that matters is getting that degree because that's the only thing employers look at, so you copy answers so you can pass. As an educator, the only thing that you are evaluated on are the scores of your students and not how they get their high scores, so you allow them to cheat..

I believe that Chinese education could benefit from an overhaul of the test system and the employment of more practical and diverse teaching/ learning methods in high schools. More emphasis should be placed on critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and being a well-rounded individual. Colleges should look at entrance exam test scores as well as grade point averages, community service, and participation in extracurricular activities such as the school newspaper, band, theater, and sports. Accountability for educators should not be based solely on the test scores produced by their classes, and class grades should not be based solely upon the average of midterm and final exams. Teachers should be encouraged to enrich classes with activities, projects, simulations, analysis, and experiments that also count toward the students' final grades. Evaluation of teachers should include not only the scores of the students' exams, but also their lesson plans and observation in the classroom. Students should also be held accountable and severely punished (if not expelled) for plagiarism and cheating. A college degree should be something that is earned through hard work, not gotten by putting forth the bare minimum of effort. College should not be the reward for busting your ass in high school, but a continuance of the learning and growing process that must begin in high school.


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