In defense of the 高考: Chinese, foreigners rally to its support!

Yesterday, two reader-arguments (here and here) that the gaokao or 高考, the standardized, nationwide college-admissions exam for students in China, plays a central role in the parts of Chinese education that people inside and outside the country dislike. (On that larger debate, here.)

Since then, a flood of correspondence from people generally offering a "Yes, but..." defense of the gaokao. Yes, it's not connected to "real" education. Yes, it makes students' lives hell. Yes... But: it has other advantages. Or, the obvious alternatives would be even worse -- especially given widespread Chinese fear that any more "subjective" system would certainly be rigged.

Here is a sampling. Judge for yourself -- and be convinced, at least, that allocating educational opportunity in a country with the scale and extremes of China is a complicated business.

1. From a reader in China:

I just read your posts on the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao.  While I agreed that this system did focus too much on memorizing books and exam preparation, it cannot be replaced for the current sociaty.  The advantage of this universal exam system is relative fairness.
Yes, there are much unfairness in the exam system, i.e. Beijing and Shanghai got too many quotas for the colleges entries, minority groups got extra points, and some can get in based on their privilege and wealth.  However, this system is the most fair and practical one compared to all other alternative systems.  The American system including essays, reference letters, community service experiences...all too subjective and easy to manipulate in China.  The privileged ones will benefit even more from American system and squeeze the poor talented ones out of the best schools. 
I am all for a reformed education system to promote innovation.  But the first thing the education should achieve is fairness: the best students can be selected to get the best education. 

2) From Ella Shengru Zhou, a Chinese student who has just finished college in Beijing and will enroll in a Harvard graduate school this fall. She has worked with me as a interpreter and assistant.

Officially done with my college study today, I feel I just have to say something about the discussion on China's education. I don't think gao kao is the problem in China's education.
First, any student who has done every year's gao kao exams since 1995 could tell you that the exam itself has been changing. The test-makers have been making a conscious effort to make it rely less on memorization but on creativity. Second, despite the occasional cheating, and different bars of college acceptation for each provinces, gao kao may be the only fair chance a Chinese student has in breaking out his or her social context. The upward-movability for most Chinese is first achieved through this gao kao system ever since its ancient model keju was established.

Third, it is much easier to criticize gao kao than to suggest a workable alternative. Essays, interviews sound nice but are prone to subjectivity and therefore corruption. China would give students more chances to take gao kao if it could, like the SAT, but the amount of human resources and coordination went into each gao kao is immense. Fourth, it's not the exam, it's the school. I won't even put parents on the list, because a good enough school would get parents' "blind" trust. And this is where I prove my case with my high school.

I'm one of the unlucky ones that didn't go through gao kao, instead I was accepted by my college half a year before gao kao, through a bao song (recommendation) system reserved for the national science awards winners and top students from the 13 foreign language schools established under the order of Zhou Enlai. When we met , you commented on my English skills, but I owe every bit of that to my high school - everyone from my high school speak good English. We were taught by Chinese, and didn't have more class hour than other schools, but we had a shockingly free environment that encourages ideas, innovation and self-learning.

Our school was tiny, I enrolled with 80 other students. Now among them, there are soon-to-be Oxford lawyer, philosopher, scientist, Stanford computer scientists, MIT physicist, Columbia mathematician, Peking University historian; there are those who already got into The Foreign Ministry, Xinhua News, and various other crucial national organs.

But we were not educated under the stereotypical Chinese education model. Self-learning, peer-critique, critical thinking were all essential in our school. We were encouraged to rebuke propaganda - and yes we were a school that commemorated June 4th; we had free press - student magazines, newspapers flourished; we had all sorts of student clubs, from the utterly ridiculous to student rights groups that often made direct demands to the administrators.

Did our parents know how we were taught in our school? Were they worried that we might be "too liberal for our own good"? Probably yes, but because our graduates are doing so well, our parents had little ground for complaint or interference.

Most importantly, all this happened despite the fact that the majority of our students had to take gao kao.

So I think pinning down the problem on something only the government can change, like gao kao, is really not very helpful, the real problem lies with the school, and that is something many people could make a difference in, including the exact same people who are criticizing gao kao.

3) From a non-Chinese teacher at a college in Shenzhen:

One of the things I've taken from my experience in Chinese education
is that issues of efficiency and real-world usefulness play second
fiddle to an entirely different concept of fairness than what
Westerners are used to. It's hard to spot unless you ask the right
questions. A case in point is shoving 50 students into a classroom
with huge variances in ability simply because they all happened to be
ranked, sorted, and placed in a homeroom-style class studying a major
they cannot change and may not have actually chosen. I have nearly
fluent students mixed with those who melt when asked how their weekend

When I've asked the local teachers why this is, and why not have
foreign language classes based on ability (Conversational English
I/II/III) that students work their way through, they looked genuinely
shocked. It would be unfair - how could you think to punish a
struggling student by putting him into a bad class? All students
deserve the best possible English class.

If you look back at the old imperial exam system, it had in in-built
check against nepotism. Theoretically, anybody could memorize a vast
amount of nearly useless texts written in an obscure non-vernacular
language and rise to the highest ranks of government. It was mindless
meritocracy at it's best, measuring tenacity and at least one sort of
mental skill.

I think we're witnessing the same thing today. Though my students
*hated* the Gaokao and know it has little correlation with intellect,
I get that same shocked expression when I ask if it's the same as in
America - richer students get higher scores, getting into better
colleges, repeating a cycle. Most of my students got fairly low
scores, but blame it on break-ups, stress, or simply being lazy.
Despite everything, they do believe it's fundamentally fair and most
students at the top schools did, legitimately, earn their way to the
top however ridiculous the contest was.

4) From another non-Chinese person at a university in Hong Kong:

If you're interested in the subject of examinations and their influence on
culture, I would HIGHLY recommend that you read (and recommend to your
readers) this book:

Author:     Zeng, Kangmin
Title:      Dragon gate : competitive examinations and their consequences
Imprint:    London ; New York : Cassell, 1999

It's a comparative and historical analysis of the examination systems in
Japan, Taiwan, & Korea. It's interesting to see how these systems were
influenced by the Chinese examination systems in pre-19th century and then
heavily by Japanese systems under colonialism and have then developed
further.  Although it does not deal directly w/ Chinese examination
systems, I think it offers many insights.

One particular thing I remember from it was that parents in Taiwan were
very much against anything BUT "gao kao" results being used for university
entrance, because it was assumed that grades, teacher recommendations,
coaches recommendations, etc. were too easily manipulated through bribery,
favoritism, and other forms of  corruption.

On anti-hackneyed-language principles, I am against any book about China that has the word "Dragon" in its title (except the ones I like). But this book is ten years old, and maybe the imagery seemed fresher then. It's available here.