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The gao kao system

Last December, Shanghai students debuted in an international standardized test—the Program for International Student Assessment—and outperformed the rest of the world in reading, math and science while the U.S. scored 15th place in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.

The American response to these results was immediate. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan grimly called the PISA results a “wake-up call,” insisting that American students are being poorly prepared to compete internationally. In a globalizing environment, he asserted, we have been left in the dust and are now resting in a “mantle of mediocrity.”

Duncan is right to be concerned. News like this holds all sorts of real implications about our competitiveness and productivity in the face of a rising power like China that invests huge amounts of resources in education.

At the same time, there’s confusion about how the U.S. should interpret and respond to its growing anxiety of being out-educated by countries like China. Should we transplant the Chinese culture of education into our own system? Not only is it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of high academic performance, but it’s also difficult to qualitatively compare Chinese and American students because of the vastly different incentives built into our respective education systems.

I recently had dinner with a friend, Xiaochen, who is one of those high-performing Chinese students. Xiaochen has successfully navigated China’s college admission system and now attends Peking University, widely regarded as the most elite and premier university in the country and often called the “Harvard of China.”

Behind the reality of Chinese students’ extraordinary performance is a more complicated story of trade-offs. Chinese students go through a highly stressful, test-oriented academic environment because admission to college is based on one exam administered in July called the gao kao.

Xiaochen described studying 16 hours a day for three years for the gao kao, even during school hours. He called his senior year of high school the worst in his life and said the gao kao is probably the single most important event in any Chinese student’s life. The exam enters into a Chinese student’s consciousness early on as the one event that will determine the university he attends and arguably the sort of life he can lead after that.

In Beijing, high school seniors must list their top three university choices before taking the gao kao, which turns college admissions into a huge gamble. Confident students might pick Peking University as their top choice, but if their gao kao score doesn’t measure up, they could spend another year studying for the gao kao.

Gaining admission into an elite university such as Peking or Tsinghua is the ultimate prize, but spots are limited at any college, especially an elite one. Each year, 10 million students from around the country compete for roughly six million spots in universities.

The test-oriented culture is a product of Chinese sociopolitical history. During the Maoist era, education was used as an ideological tool where students had to go through their work-units in order to gain admission to colleges. When Deng Xiaoping came into power after Mao’s death, he realized that in order to narrow the education gap between China and other countries like the U.S., achievement—and not politics—would be the basis of Chinese education, leading to the gao kao.

Now, Chinese students recognize the impracticality of the gao kao system but accept it as a reality they can’t escape until they get into the university of their choice. In America, though the college admissions system is inherently more arbitrary, students are judged based on not only SAT scores but also grades, recommendations and extracurricular involvement.

Xiaochen also mentioned the vast differences between student culture in China and America. He doesn’t attend parties, even in college, and he recounted that in high school people rarely dated. If they did, a teacher might take them aside to question the effects of the relationship on the students’ academic performance, which would be unthinkably awkward in an American high school.

Despite the fact that Chinese students are extremely academically well-equipped, there is a lot about the American education system that Chinese students and professors envy. Many Chinese complain their system lacks creativity and productive teacher-student discourse, stemming from the Confucian legacy of utmost deference to a teacher. Not surprisingly, the number of Chinese international students coming to the U.S. to study has increased dramatically in the last decade.

Although the PISA results show a real need for America to focus on its myriad educational problems, the basic philosophy that an education should impart not only the ability to do well on tests but also allow students to pursue a more balanced set of activities is a good one. This balance is something that can’t be adequately reflected by a standardized test.

Jessica Kim is a Trinity junior studying abroad in Beijing, China. Her column runs every other Monday.

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