Gaokao a rite of passage, not an end point

By Ma Yingyi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 5, 2012
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Students work hard before the Gaokao. [File photo]

 Students work hard before the Gaokao. [File photo]

On June 7-8, 9 million students will take the annual Chinese College Entrance Examination, known in Mandarin as the Gaokao.

I took the test 16 years ago in July. At that time, our generation called it "Dark July," to symbolize the insurmountable stress, endless anxiety and non-stop work that enveloped our lives in darkness. Supposedly, when we completed the test and earned good enough scores for college admission, dark July would be over and there would be a bright future ahead.

I was one of the lucky few who passed the exam and entered a university of my choice. Four years later, I graduated and received a full scholarship to study in a graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. With my Ph.D. in hand, I later received an offer to teach at Syracuse, another American university.

Stories like mine in China repeatedly confirm the ethos surrounding the Gaokao, which is about opportunity, social mobility, and making one's dream come true.

However, many students nowadays still wonder if there is a life past the Gaokao. What will their post-Gaokao life be like?

The answer was more straightforward 16 years ago than it is now. When I was a high school senior, less than 10 percent of the college-age population could go to college, and higher education was still a privilege in China. As a result, when we graduated, we were able to land jobs, sometimes quite good jobs, with little effort. As such, post-Gaokao life was secure and likely lucrative. As college graduates were seen as proud elites back then, we took this for granted.

After the unprecedented college expansion that started in 1999, more and more students have been attending college. The race to go to university has escalated into the race to attend selective universities. Statistics show the declining wages of college graduates and rising unemployment and underemployment among graduates. Occasional stories float around that some college graduates earn lower wages than migrant workers. Some now question the value of going to college, and in certain rural areas, students are dropping out of school in droves abandoning their college plans. The rationale is: if college cannot bring about job security and higher income, why even bother taking the Gaokao?

Historical evidence shows that the above rationale is short-sighted. In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. experienced a similar college expansion and college graduates also faced tight job markets. Yet, numerous studies consistently supported the value of college degrees, and more importantly, the widening lifetime income gap between college graduates and high school graduate. This is due to the fact that college degrees are increasingly the admission tickets to most of the jobs in the growth sectors of the U.S. economy, such as education, technology, information industry, health care, etc. No wonder an important goal of President Obama's education policies is to get more young people to become college graduates.

In fact, it is not just college credentials that matter, but more importantly, the processes that students navigate their college experiences that can help them cultivate the kinds of values, attributes and characters that are important for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, this may be not on the radar of most of Chinese students who passed the Gaokao and experienced their post-Gaokao life.

My students and I recently have conducted a study of college students who systematically reported a loss of drive and interest after taking the Gaokao. Although the endless preparations, exercises and cram classes before Gaokao are lamentable, they ironically give students' lives motivation and meaning.

Students still take exams in college but none as definitive as the Gaokao. Instead of one common curriculum, in college students study a variety of different courses that could lead into many distinct career tracks. Unlike high schools teachers who often spoon feed knowledge to students through repetitive exercises, college professors expect students to be more independent, take initiatives and conduct critical analysis of the field, if necessary.

This may be quite alien to many students fresh out high school. Not surprisingly, these students often find themselves lost in college.

This points at one of the most important but rarely recognized characteristics of Chinese education system: a disconnect between secondary and tertiary education. The former is primarily test-oriented, and focuses, if not exclusively, on preparing students to obtain a good test result on the Gaokao. However, college education requires quite a different mode of learning that emphasizes creativity, innovation and critical thinking skills, which are in many ways antithetical to what the Gaokao entails.

Creativity, for example, at the core is opposite to conformity. It is to go beyond the existing rules and framework to create something new. It does not take much imagination to visualize how one's creativity is stifled after much memorization and repetitive exercises that are prevalent to preparation for the Gaokao.

In a society as large and diverse as China, many agree that Gaokao is still relatively a fair, if not perfect, mechanism for selecting talents. The critical role in college admission and its impacts on pre-college education is expected to be longstanding. However, we need to recognize that the Gaokao is not the ultimate yardstick. For those who got a high Gaokao score, success may be rewarded with entrance to a good college, but this is just another starting point. Students must remind themselves that life is a marathon; they must keep working to improve themselves. Those who get a low score should realize that they have other attributes that the Gaokao failed to recognize this time around. As long as students keep up with their efforts, life will reward them in the long run.

The author is currently an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is also an affiliated faculty member with the Women's Study Department and the program of Asia/Asian American. She obtained her PhD in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University in 2007. Her work explores issues of social inequality related to education, gender and migration.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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