Forbes Magazine has some news for U.S. students complaining about the difficulty of the Scholastic Aptitude Test many take as the first step in the college admissions process: you don't know how good you have it.
Students who aspire to a place in China's premier universities must first navigate a multi-day "testing marathon" known as the gaokao. And if you happen to be off your game on one of those days, you're in trouble. Unlike the SAT, which is administered seven times each year and allows highschoolers to retake it multiple times, Chinese students get only one shot at the exam. There are no second chances.
The exam is considered so important to the future of Chinese students that the preparation for it is the focus of the entire senior year of high school.
It is the primary tool used to sort millions of Chinese students into Chinese institutions of higher learning—students, upon learning their scores, submit a ranked list of schools they'd like to attend, and then wait for a decision. About a quarter of them won't get in to any schools in mainland China.
The demand for university slots in China is so high that the results of the gaokao have become increasingly important. Therefore, it is no surprise that like other high-stakes exams, it is often mired in controversy, ranging from cheating scandals to allegations of exam privileges for students from wealthier families over their low-income peers, to student emotional and physical breakdowns due to the pressure of cramming for the test.
The latest clash over the gaokao comes from a move by China's Ministry of Education to do away with the requirement that students go back to their hometowns to take the exam rather than be allowed to take it in the location they currently reside. The issue is a particular flash point among residents of Beijing, where those who don't have a household registration document (the hukou) often face discrimination in many areas, including education.
The change in policy was supposed to address inequality by rescinding the requirement that students who are registered as residing elsewhere don't have to go back there to take an exam. This is especially important in cases where students haven't been in the areas they're technically registered in years, as forcing them in an unfamiliar environment could have a real negative impact on their scores.
Yin Yeping, who researched the story for China's Global Times, said she became interested in it after witnessing a protest by non-local Beijing families in front of the city's Municipal Commission of Education building last month to call on the Commission to both confirm and set a firm implementation date on the new policy. Previously, Minister of Education Yuan Guiren said that the policy would definitively take effect no later than 2012.
I initially sympathized with the locals, but upon researching the story and interviewing people I realized the majority of local protesters were neither parents nor students. Instead, they were predominantly locals with a median age of 30 eager at the opportunity to express their animosity toward non-locals.
I contacted some protesters online who claimed to have participated in the war of words on October 18. One local protester, who only identified himself by his Web user name "Tianyabeijing009," claimed that education was one of many resources being overstretched by non-locals.
In contrast, Yin found the views expressed by those supporting the policy to be both more reasonable and more measured. Du Dewang, who attended the protest, said that he was there to ensure that his son — who has lived in Beijing for more than 10 of his 17 years — got the same opportunities to succeed on the test as a student with hukou.
"My son has been schooled in Beijing since primary school," he said, adding his son must now return to Inner Mongolia to take the gaokao. "The result is that he will be significantly limited when he chooses which university to enroll at in Beijing."