China's na­tional col­lege ad­mis­sions ex­ams are a mas­sive headache

▶▶Ex­perts want to fix the gaokao, which ben­e­fits ur­ban youth more than ru­ral stu­dents ▶▶“The cur­rent sys­tem it­self is un­fair. In­equal­ity is in­evitable”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Dex­ter Roberts and Jas­mine Zhao

Hu Huifeng, an 18-year-old high school se­nior from China’s Jiangxi prov­ince, is on a strict reg­i­men. Seven days a week she rises by 6 a.m. for a day of classes in Chi­nese, English, math­e­mat­ics, chem­istry, physics, and bi­ol­ogy, with the last one fin­ish­ing at 9:50 p.m. “Once I get home, I study un­til mid­night,” she says.

Hu is among the 9 mil­lion stu­dents pre­par­ing for the big­gest test of their life: China’s an­nual col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion. Called the gaokao, or “high exam,” it will take place over nine hours on June 7-8 across China. It’s the cul­mi­na­tion of years of mem­o­riza­tion and test tak­ing, capped off by at least 12 months of gru­el­ing prepa­ra­tion. With its roots in the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tions that started more than 2,000 years ago, the gaokao de­cides what school you go to and what ca­reer you might have, says Xiong Bingqi, vice pres­i­dent at the 21st Cen­tury Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute in Shanghai.

The gaokao is an es­pe­cially high hur­dle for China’s more than 100 mil­lion ru­ral stu­dents, who al­ready re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion of far lower qual­ity than their ur­ban coun­ter­parts. A quota sys­tem for al­lo­cat­ing cov­eted col­lege slots by prov­ince, which greatly fa­vors lo­cal stu­dents, also works against ru­ral youth who of­ten live far from the bet­ter uni­ver­si­ties and need higher test scores than lo­cal ap­pli­cants to gain ad­mis­sion. That means ur­ban youth are 7 times as likely to get into a col­lege as poor ru­ral youth and 11 times as likely to get into an elite in­sti­tu­tion, ac­cord­ing to econ­o­mist Scott Rozelle, a Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion re­searcher at Stan­ford. “The cur­rent

sys­tem it­self is un­fair,” Xiong says. “In­equal­ity is in­evitable.”

The prob­lem stems from house­hold reg­is­tra­tion (hukou), which ties all so­cial ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion, to one’s home­town or vil­lage. The hukou forces most ru­ral stu­dents, many of them chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers, to take the gaokao where their par­ents hail from, even if they’ve never lived there.

Hu’s fa­ther man­aged to keep her in school un­til sixth grade in Huizhou, Guang­dong, where he was once a mi­grant worker and now runs a light­ing fac­tory. At the age of 12, Hu, like her brother be­fore her, re­turned to her par­ents’ ru­ral home­town more than 600 kilo­me­ters (373 miles) away to live with her grand­par­ents in Jiangxi and go to high school. “We would have cho­sen for our chil­dren to be here if it was pos­si­ble,” her fa­ther says.

Poor prov­inces spend far less on their schools than do wealth­ier coastal cities. (About one-third of ru­ral stu­dents at­tend large board­ing schools of ques­tion­able aca­demic qual­ity.) In Shanghai, the av­er­age amount spent per ele­men­tary school stu­dent in 2014 was 14,518 yuan ($2,200), while less­well-off Guizhou prov­ince spent only 3,237 yuan. On av­er­age, ru­ral stu­dents score 40 points lower on the gaokao, 21st Cen­tury’s Xiong says.

The gaokao’s all-im­por­tant role in ad­mis­sions is be­ing re­duced by giv­ing uni­ver­si­ties more free­dom to choose stu­dents based on class grades and teacher rec­om­men­da­tions. The au­thor­i­ties are or­der­ing pub­lic schools in Guang­dong’s Pearl River Delta and other re­gions to take in more mi­grant chil­dren and let them take the col­lege en­trance ex­ams where their par­ents work. And the quota sys­tem is be­ing tweaked to al­low more stu­dents from the poorer cen­tral and west­ern re­gions to go to bet­ter uni­ver­si­ties in the east.

The costs of mi­grant chil­dren en­ter­ing new schools will bur­den lo­cal govern­ments. And fam­i­lies in cities who have ben­e­fited from the un­equal sys­tem are re­sist­ing change. When of­fi­cials re­cently an­nounced plans to al­low 78,000 stu­dents from poor re­gions to en­ter col­leges in the bet­ter-off prov­inces of Jiangsu and Hubei, protests flared. “Gover­nor, come out!” chanted an­gry par­ents out­side gov­ern­ment of­fices in mid-May in Nan­jing, Jiangsu. They wor­ried that new stu­dents would harm their chil­dren’s uni­ver­sity prospects, Chi­nese me­dia re­ported. Lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials later re­as­sured par­ents that the num­bers of lo­cal stu­dents get­ting into Jiangsu uni­ver­si­ties would not fall.

Some young Chi­nese feel the in­equities keenly. “Stu­dents in Beijing can get into Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity with lower scores than us in Jiangxi, but there’s noth­ing we can do,” frets Hu, who still aims for a top school. “Un­for­tu­nately, for many other or­di­nary stu­dents like my­self, gaokao is the sole path to re­al­ize our dreams,” wrote Chengdu stu­dent Liu Yangxiu on WeChat. She was too busy study­ing to speak over the phone.

The bot­tom line The role of the gaokao is slowly chang­ing as col­leges start to con­sider other cri­te­ria for ad­mis­sion be­yond the test.

Stu­dents in Heng­shui, He­bei prov­ince, ral­lied in late Fe­bru­ary to get ready for the gaokao

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