The Gaokao: Why Does No One Care It's Unfair?

Next week will be the dreaded gaokao, the nation-wide test administered to high school seniors which will determine their future. 10 years of schooling has lead to this moment and kids will do anything to do well from cheating to taking birth control to prevent any added stress from an ill-timed period. It’s the time of year when stories about suicides skyrocket and a collective sigh of relief will be heard through the land at 5 pm next Friday. My sweet Zoe will also be taking her gaokao next week, so keep her in your thoughts. 

Of all the gaokao stories flooding the news this week, one from the Global Times caught my eye. Entitled “A Foreign Back Door (sic) to University,” the article talks about Chinese students who have been getting foreign passports so that they can take the gaokao where they live (in places like Beijing) instead of where their hukou (the piece of paper that determines where you live and die) is registered. But what struck me about the article is that Chinese parents seem to be mad about the wrong thing. One person said “The public is angry about the ‘privileges’ of foreigners” who are able to take the gaokao in Beijing. But the real problem is this: “In Anhui, different textbooks and exam papers are used and the competition is much fiercer.” Why is a nationwide exam that determines the future of every Chinese child different depending on what province or even city one is in?

This is the real problem. The gaokao is already a failure at determining intelligence and predicting future success, but it also discriminates based on class and income levels. The Beijing gaokao is notoriously easier than in the rest of China; Beijing is also home to some of the best schools in the country. But only children who were lucky enough to be born in Beijing can take the gaokao there and go to those schools. Every single other child in China is at a disadvantage simply because of where they were born.

One educator said “In regard to educational equality, I’d say that foreigners don’t take up too many resources anyway, but if the hukou is not a requirement any more, people would swarm in to first-tier cities for the better quality of education and might cause serious problems in terms of city development.” This is easy to fix, just standardize the gaokao. Writing one standard test to be administered throughout the entire country would be immensely easier than letting each province, or city, or school write their own and having to make sure they all meet some non-existent standard. It would also be easier than policing who is taking the gaokao in the exact right city. It wouldn’t matter.

The problem isn’t that “foreigners” (the term apparently now including Chinese people who get foreign passports just for the benefits it gives) are taking the gaokao in Beijing, the problem is that the gaokao is so unfair that Chinese citizens are willing to no longer be Chinese citizens just for the chance at taking an easier version of the gaokao. With all the problems surrounding the gaokao, this one is the easiest to fix if only parents would find the right reasons to be angry and demand change.