The gaokao system may have served as a relatively effective way to select students based on meritocracy in the past, but it should be reformed today.
Gaokao has killed creativity in education
Gaokao is designed to provide a level-playing field for all students in China to compete for limited spots in top universities in the country. But it lacks flexibility, has reinforced our singular perception of talents, entrenched inequality, and killed creativity in education.
The simplest argument to make is that students are humans too, and there can be circumstances in which people underperform compared to other occasions. Students deserve a chance to improve, and they shouldn’t be penalized by having to wait – or waste – a year if they somehow didn’t do as well as they should have done.
Moreover, the psychological impact of one single exam which can determine your future is overwhelming. Knowing that one precarious mistake can be fatal and you won’t be given a chance to give it another shot until a year later – that’s simply brutal.
Gaokao is supposed to promote equality, because everyone is admitted to college based on their score. But in fact, different cities or provinces are subject to a quota and cap system, which allows more enrolment for local students, even if they score lower than their peers from other provinces.
This means that students from Beijing or Shanghai, where most of the country’s best universities are located, will have an unfair advantage over students from places with fewer educational resources.
Students should be allowed to be different and to be creative in schools. But the gaokao score is almost the only criteria for students’ admission to universities. That means gaokao makes it compelling – if not subjugating – for students to prioritize their exam scores more than other talents and traits.
Students’ performance in these exams are largely based on rote learning, and thus students with talents in other areas – such as public speaking, leadership, communication and even computer science – are significantly undervalued.
The biggest problem with the gaokao is not the exams, but the fetish it has helped to entrench: the national psyche of a relatively singular measurement of talent and success. As if people who score higher in these exams will automatically be more successful in society.
Human intelligence is dynamic, and each individual has their unique talent and potential. So there shouldn’t be a universal standard to evaluate every student. In a way, it would be a more fair and comprehensive to evaluate individuals’ other traits and qualities. The best education system doesn’t just let students compete to be the best, but allows students to become the best of themselves.
The market is changing every single day, and the education system must adapt to these changes. Skills valued at school may no longer serve society’s interests or meet the market’s demand by the time students graduate.
Fortunately, I didn’t take the gaokao exam. I was able to focus on studying the things I was interested in, in a way I most enjoyed. That’s simply not possible under the gaokao system.
I don’t think the way liberal arts are taught and tested in China are inducive to producing the kind of talents China needs. I didn’t realize how backward our liberal arts education is in China before coming to study in the United States.
China is going through an economic transition and is gradually opening up to the world and embracing globalization. It needs talents of all sorts: not just those who are good at memorizing and math, but well-rounded talents who can adapt and be creative. People can only tap their potential and maximize their contribution to the betterment of human society when they are allowed to do what they excel at.
Boyang Xue is an independent consultant based in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a Research Analyst at the Frontier Strategy Group and a Research Assistant at the Brookings Institution. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Economics and International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University.