Gao Kao, The Chinese Exam Explained by Chinese Students

Gao Kao: Chinese SAT

Today I asked students in a “Listening and Speaking” course what their future career holds for them. Most of them said they would become translators and interpretors, which matches their degree title. Others said, “I don’t know…,” which many American students would probably say too. But there was a small percentage of translation majors who said, “I’d like to study biology” or “I want to be an economist.” Their preference for a different major, and future, was clear as day for them; but, unfortunately, their Gao Kao score wasn’t high enough to choose that major. Think about it: their score was high enough to enter this university, but not high enough to choose a field of study they preferred.

My first reaction was as knee-jerked as, perhaps, yours just was. How could you be smart enough to enter a university, but not good enough to join certain fields of study? Gao Kao, the Chinese SAT or A-Levels, was the single thing standing in their way. So, I probed a little more about their alternatives, since there must be a loophole somewhere…

What if you drop out this year? Couldn’t you just choose a lower-ranked university next year and begin studying the courses you prefer? They said… “it’s not that simple.” If you want to change universities in China you need a well-connected father or uncle who will get it done. Otherwise, you will have to take the Gao Kao again, and who knows the changes that will have happened to the test… Perhaps the exam will be more difficult the next year…

SAT Prep

Before we get lost, let’s dissect what “changes” in this “standardized” exam they are talking about. Every year in China the content of the national exam for higher education changes. The exam might be “easier” or more” difficult” in any given year, which I’m told leads to an adjustment in the total score possible. ALSO, every province has their own test and grading scales depending on factors such as economic prosperity. (Poorer areas are allowed to boost their students’ total Gao Kao score or make the exam “easier”.) AND according to the ranking of individual universities, their lower-limit acceptance scores change EVERY year. The result: acceptance scores  dramatically swing up or down every year, making comparisons among students from different graduating classes impossible.

Phew… That was a lot for me to digest too- but can you imagine? (No wonder suicide rates among teens increase every year around Gao Kao time.) It’s a standardized test, which changes standards across all provinces, every year.  Messy.

But this is the way things are. From a Chinese standpoint, if the test was the same every year then students would cheat. If our requisite courses contained the same information every time we taught them, the students would cheat. If we prepared the students for all the content that would be expected of them to know, they would cheat. There must be a strong presence of unknown for any exam or course to be “credible” here.

When you make things so unpredictable what are the standards? Is the SAT or A-Levels like this?

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