China is trying to make its infamous college entrance exam more equitable

Good news for China’s high school students.
Good news for China’s high school students.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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Every June, cities across China shut down construction and ban traffic near schools—some villages shut down all together—as millions of high school students begin taking two days of grueling college-entrance exams that will determine the rest of their life. Suicides inevitably spike.

Now, China’s infamous gaokao exam is being reformed. Du Yubo, China’s vice minister of education said yesterday that the government is launching “the most comprehensive” reform of the exam since China’s economic opening and reforms in the late 1970s. By 2020, parts of the exam will be taken throughout high school rather than all at once after graduating, and students will be able to opt out of some tests.

The most important changes, though, have less to do with the immense pressure the exam places on students. The gaokao is also criticized for creating a yawning education gap that exacerbate China’s high levels of inequality. Top tier universities have higher admission quotas for students with household registration, or hukou, in the same cities, putting students in rural and poorer areas at a disadvantage. One researcher found that a student applying from Beijing is 41 times more likely to be accepted into Peking University than a student from the poorer province of Anhui.

Du said that enrollment quotas for poorer areas in China’s central and western provinces, as well as more populated provinces, will be raised. Students also won’t be awarded extra points for sports or arts—a system that created a lucrative side business for schools selling students “national-level athlete” certificates for as much as $13,000.

Chinese state media today hailed the reforms as a way to make “all students equal.” The move “declares China’s determination to realize fairness in the higher education system,” the state-run Global Times wrote in an editorial. Chinese students commenting online appeared a little less sanguine and for some, the reforms may be too little too late: ”Reforms are always way behind the times. Where were you a few years ago?” one blogger wrote.