China’s SAT

If the SAT lasted two days, covered everything you’d ever studied, and decided your future.

BEIJING, China—For China’s 31st annual National College Entrance Exam, which takes place on the first Thursday and Friday of June, at least 10 million Chinese high-school students have registered to sit the gaokao, as it is colloquially known. They are competing for an estimated 5.7 million university spots.

Kao means test, and gao, which means high, indicates the test’s perceived level of difficulty—and its ability to intimidate. It is China’s SAT—if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one’s entire professional trajectory.

As economic development in China careens forward, interest in and the ability to pay for a college education swell. So does competition. Getting into a top-tier university such as Beijing’s Tsinghua or Peking University—the former the alma mater of four of the nine members of China’s current Politburo, the latter China’s oldest university—might lead to an interview with a major multinational or an elite political gig. At the least, a college education can circumvent a blue-collar job with a slow journey up a long, bureaucratic ladder. (Manual labor is generally reserved for poor farmers left with no recourse other than migrant work.)

Students become aware of the gaokao, the sole criterion for university admission, at an early age. Pressures and preparations begin accordingly. All schooling, especially middle- and high-school curricula, is oriented toward gaokao readiness. Students often joke that it takes 12 years to study for the test. Angel, a freshman studying at the China Foreign Affairs University, where I currently teach, remembers walking out after the first day of testing and hearing her best friend remark, “Well, there goes six years.”

Essentially, Chinese universities accept those students who are good at taking tests. This makes sense for an educational system historically oriented toward rote learning, where students are tested on how well they’ve memorized their teachers’ lectures. Mary, who is about to graduate from the Beijing Foreign Languages University, admitted she had many brilliant friends who simply didn’t test well. They retook the test after another year of studying (the gaokao is offered just once a year) and enrolled wherever their scores permitted.

This style of learning might not encourage creativity or individuality, but for the world’s most populous country, the gaokao provides an objective yardstick by which to measure academic success. In theory at least, students’ social and economic statuses don’t matter: The gaokao “allows someone very poor the opportunity to rise out of poverty,” explained Mary.

Take Michael Yu, founder and CEO of New Oriental, an extremely successful provider of educational services, including gaokao prep. The son of illiterate farmers, Yu took the test three times before he got into Peking U’s English-language program. He is now a model Chinese citizen, known for heading a NYSE-listed company with $2.6 billion market capitalization. *

The test is supposed to be uniform nationally, but in reality, the gaokao is modified by each province to accommodate the quality of local education. Among students, it is widely held that Tibet and Xinjiang have the easiest versions, Beijing and Shanghai the most difficult. Each university also sets provincial quotas to guarantee minimum enrollment by minorities and students from poorer provinces and to ensure a lopsided number of local entrants (this is the Chinese strategy for maintaining amicable town-gown relations).

Students are essentially competing against others in their province. Shandong, Anhui, and Sichuan provinces are known for disproportionately high averages not just because of large populations but because bad local economies dissuade young people from staying home to find work. In Shanghai, on the other hand, if a student doesn’t test well, there is no end of work opportunities available.

Scores determine one’s major as much as alma mater. Tsinghua, “the MIT of China,” has an internationally renowned engineering program, so gaokao minimums are out of this world. To enter Tsinghua’s software engineering department in 2007, students needed a score of at least 680, out of top scores in the low 700s, depending on the province. (Consider that in Shandong Province, the highest 2007 score was 675.) The software engineering program at Xibei Sciences University, in the city of Xi’an *, demanded just 442.

Some provinces, including Beijing, permit students to see their gaokao scores before they apply; others, like Shandong and Anhui, require them to indicate preferences before the results are released. Students are left to guess the best school and department they can get into, which often results in unhappy matches. Mike is about to complete his studies in diplomacy at CFAU. Had he seen his gaokao scores before applying, however, he would have known that he had qualified for his first choice: environmental protection at Peking U. In other cases, students overestimate their scores and are left with no option at the end of the summer but to study another year.

Later this week, China will accommodate millions of nervous gaokao-takers. Traffic cops will redirect vehicles away from test centers, and construction sites will pause their incessant drilling. Even in Sichuan, tents have been erected in case aftershocks require students to be moved from testing centers. Many Chinese citizens find the system painful, inflexible, and ineffective. But even more side with Mary, who told me, “It’s not perfect, but it’s the fairest system.”

Correction, June 10, 2008: This article originally understated the market capitalization of New Oriental. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 10, 2008: This article inaccurately referred to the city of Xi’an as a province. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)