‘Gaokao’ 2020:
The Rights and Wrongs of China’s Dreaded Exam

‘Gaokao’ 2020: The Rights and Wrongs of China’s Dreaded Exam

China’s college entrance exam is designed to give every student a fair and equal chance of success. But in 2020, some are more equal than others.

This week, over 10.7 million students across China are taking part in the largest public event since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak: the college-entrance examinations, or gaokao.

For the students, their performance in the tests will impact their lives for years to come, as Chinese universities’ enrollment decisions are based almost entirely on applicants’ gaokao scores.

It’s a meritocratic system designed to give every child an equal shot at an elite education. But as Sixth Tone explores in this series, some gaokao candidates are more equal than others — and this is especially true in 2020.

While the pandemic has disrupted the exam preparations of students across the country, those in Beijing and other areas forced to shut down schools just weeks ahead of the tests due to a “second wave” of the virus have been hit particularly hard.

In the southwestern Sichuan province, meanwhile, a growing number of students are choosing to retake the gaokao multiple times. Though some succeed in getting the super-high score they need to enter a top college, others complain that re-sitting the test is a luxury not everyone can afford.

The excessive focus on cramming for the gaokao is also leaving many students, especially those from rural areas, unprepared for the reality of college life. Several so-called “exam experts from small towns” share their stories.

Nearly 70 years after its introduction, the gaokao still gets high marks as a social equalizer. But as one student who spoke with Sixth Tone put it, the series of tests risk becoming a “bandage” that covers up the inequities in China’s education system. Only by fixing these deeper issues can the gaokao system truly level the playing field.