China’s go-ahead for entrance exam seen as sign of confidence

Other Asian nations weigh whether it is fair to test students during a time of mass disruption  

April 8, 2020
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Experts have viewed the Chinese government's decision to hold the gao kao, the national university entrance exam, in July as a sign that the government expects the country to be back on track by summer. 

However, there are also signs that China is being cautious. The capital of Beijing and Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, are two areas where gao kao sessions have not been confirmed for July.  

A record high of 10.71 million students are expected to sit the in-person test, which will take place in most parts of the country on 7 and 8 July, postponed by about a month from its original date in June. This is despite the fact that high schools in China have been shuttered since February.

Ceren Ergenc, an associate professor at the department of China studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, told Times Higher Education that “the public has an expectation that in-person education will resume soon. If that happens, it will be an important sign of life going back to normal, but it will also be a test of whether the pandemic is completely under control domestically in China.”

Yin Hong-biao, a professor in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Faculty of Education, told THE that such a move probably “means the government is confident about virus control”. 

One essential difference between China’s exam and end-of-school tests in other nations is that “the gao kao is run by the Chinese government, not some private corporation”, said Professor Yin, who is also associate director of CUHK’s Centre for University and School Partnership. “This is the most important examination for Chinese students in their school lives.”

Across East Asia, parents and educators have expressed doubt about whether students in virus-hit areas are academically and emotionally prepared. In some countries, mass exams are being rescheduled more than six months in advance. 

South Korea, for example, said that it would delay its College Scholastic Ability Test from November to December. 

Meanwhile, student stress over the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) has reached a record high, according to a survey reported by The South China Morning Post. The DSE has already been postponed from March to April, and in-person oral exams have been cancelled. However, there are still calls from some educators to consider alternatives to in-person testing, such as calculating scores based on earlier mock exams or other assessments. 

In mainland China, there are concerns that geographically or economically disadvantaged students will be left even further behind in this year’s gao kao. While some exam prep courses are available online, China’s internet penetration rate is only about 60 per cent, which is lower than that of most developed countries. Families in remote or lower-income areas are less likely to have fast or unlimited internet service.

Ross Buchanan, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, who recently co-authored a research paper on equality issues related to gao kao quotas, said he could not “think of any way that this would help disadvantaged students catch up”, emphasising that this was his personal opinion.

He added: “The additional time students have to study is available for all students, not just those who are disadvantaged. Also, the various factors that advantage some students and disadvantage others (for example, socio-economic status) persist regardless of when the gao kao is administered.” 

Professor Yin of CUHK agreed that the extra month might not give disadvantaged students a leg up. “For sure, the less advantaged students have one more month to prepare, but their peers have the same month, too,” he said.

“It means all students will suffer one more month for the preparation of the gao kao,” he added. 

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