Opinion
Assessment Opinion

An American Teenager’s Perspective on the World’s Hardest Test

By Julia McMahon-Cole — August 08, 2017 4 min read
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Editor’s Intro: Julia McMahon-Cole, a 17-year-old rising senior in Lincoln, Nebraska shares her thoughts on China’s Gao Kao- the test that determines the fate of high school graduates - and sometimes their families.

What could possibly be more terrifying than the ACT or the SAT for American high school juniors and seniors? If you’re like me, nothing comes to mind ... that is, until a few weeks ago. That was when I came face to face with the Gao Kao - China’s national college entrance exam - which may be the world’s hardest and most stressful test.

I recently took the 28-hour journey from my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, to the town of Jingmen, in China’s Hubei Province. I traveled to Jingmen to live with a retired couple and fully immerse myself in Mandarin for a month.

In Jingmen I saw firsthand real “high-stakes testing.” Initially, I didn’t see how the Gao Kao, China’s national exam, differed that much from American ACT or SAT tests. Both are college entrance exams, and there is no mistaking the stress that students in both countries face. But as I interacted with more and more Chinese high school seniors, I realized how different their stress was from mine as an American student. Quite literally, the Gao Kao seems to decide their future.

The best schools for children to attend are typically private, so no matter if it is elementary, middle, or high school, Chinese parents (and grandparents) who can afford to, pay private school tuition. Because of this level of investment, for the first 18 years of their lives, Chinese students’ one and only job is to study for the ever-looming Gao Kao, which takes place every year on the last two days of the school year.

The morning of the first test day was dead silent, and I learned that silence is part of the annual test-day ritual. The Gao Kao is taken in four parts: the sciences, history, Chinese, and English, spanning two days and roughly adding up to about nine hours. During these two long days - the Gao Kao serves as students’ one-time capstone project - the surrounding community steps up. Construction is halted within a mile of the testing centers; and police and ambulance sirens are turned off. Communities even set up recovery stands for students leaving their testing building, to help any who collapse from the stress of testing.

When I arrived at 10:45 in the morning, students had been testing since 8:00 and were allowed out at 11:30 for an afternoon break. A quiet crowd had formed in front of the gates of the school. Needless to say, quiet crowds are not the norm in China, but in this instance, anyone making noises was glared at by concerned parents. After dropping off their children in the morning, many of the parents remained outside the gates waiting patiently for them to finish. Once on break, they would rush them home to power up for their next test.

While waiting, I talked to a few parents about what exactly they were hoping for today. Their answers were telling: One mother told me in a whisper that her best friend’s son had gotten a 500 (out of a highest possible score of 750) last year and was so disappointed with his low score that he withdrew from his family and now doesn’t talk to many people anymore. That morning, she was praying that her daughter did well so she could be proud of herself and confident about her future.

An older man told me that he hoped his grandson would do well and make the rest of the family proud. As the only grandchild, they had put a lot of resources into his education over the years in preparation for these two precious days. Other parents had similar stories and thoughts: how a high Gao Kao score would bring future success to their children and pride for the whole family.

The second day was similar - nervous parents awaiting the release of their exhausted children, with their fates (in their minds) determined by this test. The families of students who did well had elaborate parties to celebrate their success. Those who did not do well kept quiet.

In China, most students apply to the best college that accepts their Gao Kao score, since it is the only thing that they consider in the application process. No wonder Chinese students feel such intense pressure. But this pressure is not new for the students because to get into the best middle and high schools they also must test into them, and only have one chance to do so, like the Gao Kao.

While everyone agrees that the Gao Kao puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on teenagers, and there have been efforts over the past several years to put reforms in place to make the exam more equitable for all students, some feel that the Gao Kao should be canceled entirely. But no one I talked to can think of a better way to test so many students while trying to make sure every student has an equal chance.

I don’t pretend to be a testing expert or fully understand the Chinese education system, but whatever the solution to this complex problem, we should ensure it focuses on developing in young people the critical thinking skills that allow them to solve problems and take action themselves, be better prepared to confront new situations, and adapt to changing times that are sure to come in our ever-changing world. No standardized test, not even the Gao Kao, can truly prepare you for that.

Follow the Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Image by 江苏省南通中学教师范建 - 作者本人授权, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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