As the results of China’s all-important college entrance examination, known as the gaokao, emerge this week, China’s media have commenced their annual ritual of converting the top scorers into student-celebrities.
But some in the country are questioning whether acing the exam is all it’s cracked up to be.
Chinese media and websites are teeming this week with discussion of a purported study showing that the top scorers on the gaokao over the last 30 years have ended up being disappointments. According to the English-language China Daily newspaper, the study of 1,000 top scorers on the gaokao from 1977 to 2008 did not find a single student who went on to outstanding success in any field.
Word of the supposed study has spread like kudzu, but its provenance is unclear. Some have cited the Chinese military newspaper, the Liberation Daily, which itself cited its own affiliated publication, but that reference couldn’t be tracked down. So it’s unclear whether this is an actual study, or a rumor.
Regardless, the mere notion that super scorers — called zhuangyuan — might not end up super-achievers is a shock in a country where the grueling two-day examination is a rite of passage for every aspiring student. The American SAT and its cousin, the ACT, are a cakewalk by comparison. Children literally spend years studying solely for the gaokao. Without it, a college education in China is out of reach.
Those who scored the highest marks in the examination are doing local radio and television interviews and fielding questions from awestruck parents about how to prepare their four-year-olds for exam success.
Li Taibo, who took first place in all of Beijing for the science portion of the exam, has become an instant sensation. Li was first among over 48,000 test takers, according to an article in the Global Times.
A larger-than-life picture of Li has been erected in front of his high school to celebrate his accomplishment.
As a gaokao champion, Li can expect to undergo careful public scrutiny. His study habits will be analyzed by educational experts and admiring students alike. Even his personal life will serve as a model for others. Zhang Chen, also a top scorer in science, fields questions about his relationship with his parents and how he uses his free time. Parents want to know every detail that might help their children beat the competition.
While gaokao fever is as strong as ever this year, criticism is mounting. A recent article in the People’s Daily questions the value of worshipping gaokao champions. Such laser-like focus on the winners may even be harmful to the educational system, the article asserts.
Educational experts in the West often argue that the rigidity of the test suppresses individual creativity, which is important for success in the real world.
Nevertheless, the gaokao has its defenders. Wu Meng, writing in the Global Times, opines that the stereotype of the No. 1 student as a narrowminded bookworm who only knows how to take tests is outdated. People can learn a great deal from these excellent students, and the reason they don’t succeed later in life is because of the failure of China’s higher education, he says.
Another popular argument for the examination is its fairness. Many Chinese express skepticism at the idea of teacher recommendations and interviews determining college admissions. Wouldn’t personal relationships get in the way of meritocracy?
Come September, Beijing University will undoubtedly accept a large number of gaokao champions as new students. So far, however, Western colleges have mostly come to a different decision. Li Taibo, the Beijing science top scorer, was surprised to discover that he had been rejected by Harvard, Yale, Stanford and a number of other top American colleges, according to reports.
Then again, Harvard rejects many applicants with perfect SAT scores as well.
– Christopher Carothers