Long-term reform debated as China prepares for more online tests

Postgraduate admissions assessments may have digital element despite falling number of Covid cases

February 28, 2021
Student using laptop
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China is considering running its national postgraduate admissions test online, raising questions about whether Covid will have a long-term impact on the country’s high-stakes approach to assessment.

China Higher Education Student Information, the digital hub for official examination notices and updates, advises candidates for Beijing universities to “be prepared for an online test as well” in its March and April exam calendar, even though the number of Covid cases has fallen to zero in many parts of the country. The People’s Daily included a page about online testing in its post offering students guidance for the next round of the postgraduate entrance exam.

“Universities would surely be wise to have two strings to their bow, even for those in low-risk areas,” Li Kelang, head of the Centre of Postgraduate Education and Development at Shenzhen University, told Times Higher Education. “We have gained some experience last year, so it is at least a back-up plan this year, but we need to wait for further notice from the education authorities.”

Last year, the initial round of the test was delayed by about a month to April because of the pandemic. There was then a massive shift online for its second stage, in which remote methods such as video interviews and open-book tests were adopted by most institutions.

The move was welcomed by some education experts as a positive push for exam reform. Xiong Bingqi, a deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, wrote that multi-element interviews “can be beneficial for deepening the reform of educational evaluation”.

The goal of an improved postgraduate admissions test is to comprehensively consider a candidate’s exam results, practical ability, creativity and general performance, according to a Ministry of Education directive on graduate education issued a few months ago.

Mr Li admitted that the shift online had been a catalyst for changes to some extent but had had “limited long-term impact” on exam reform so far.

“One of the fundamental problems of the current exam system is the conflict between competitive selection and equal access to education at a practical level,” he said.

“Meeting the public anticipation of fairness in education weighs more than the pursuit of education efficacy at the moment. Competitive selection is an education issue, but equal access to education is also a social governance issue.”

Mr Li added: “I assume the shift online would be at least a back-up solution for most institutions this year. When it comes to the exam reform, we cannot achieve the goal in one move when the fundamental issue hasn’t been addressed.”


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