Adam Dean for The New York Times
Nervous family members and well-wishers waited Sunday outside in Tianjin, China, as students took the test that will determine whether they will go to college.
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: June 12, 2009
TIANJIN, China — For the past year, Liu Qichao has focused on one thing, and only one thing: the gao kao, or the high test.
Fourteen to 16 hours a day, he studied for the college entrance examination, which this year will determine the fate of more than 10 million Chinese students. He took one day off every three weeks.
He was still carrying his textbook from room to room last Sunday morning before leaving for the exam site, still reviewing materials during the lunch break, still hard at work Sunday night, preparing for Part 2 of the exam that Monday.
“I want to study until the last minute,” he said. “I really hope to be successful.”
China may be changing at head-twirling speed, but the ritual of the gao kao (pronounced gow kow) remains as immutable as chopsticks. One Chinese saying compares the exam to a stampede of “a thousand soldiers and 10 horses across a single log bridge.”
The Chinese test is in some ways like the American SAT, except that it lasts more than twice as long. The nine-hour test is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities. About three in five students make the cut.
Families pull out all the stops to optimize their children’s scores. In Sichuan Province in southwestern China, students studied in a hospital, hooked up to oxygen containers, in hopes of improving their concentration.
Some girls take contraceptives so they will not get their periods during the exam. Some well-off parents dangle the promise of fabulous rewards for offspring whose scores get them into a top-ranked university: parties, 100,000 renminbi in cash, or about $14,600, or better.
“My father even promised me, if I get into a college like Nankai University in Tianjin, ‘I’ll give you a prize, an Audi,’ ” said Chen Qiong, a 17-year-old girl taking the exam in Beijing.
Outside the exam sites, parents keep vigil for hours, as anxious as husbands waiting for their wives to give birth. A tardy arrival is disastrous. One student who arrived four minutes late in 2007 was turned away, even though she and her mother knelt before the exam proctor, begging for leniency.
Cheating is increasingly sophisticated. One group of parents last year outfitted their children with tiny earpieces, persuaded a teacher to fax them the questions and then transmitted the answers by cellphone. Another father equipped a student with a miniscanner and had nine teachers on standby to provide the answers. In all, 2,645 cheaters were caught last year.
Critics complain that the gao kao illustrates the flaws in an education system that stresses memorization over independent thinking and creativity. Educators also say that rural students are at a disadvantage and that the quality of higher education has been sacrificed for quantity.
But the national obsession with the test also indicates progress. Despite a slight drop in registration this year — the first decline in seven years — five million more students signed up for the test than did so in 2002.
China now has more than 1,900 institutions of higher learning, nearly double the number in 2000. Close to 19 million students are enrolled, a sixfold jump in one decade.
Liu Qichao, 19, a big-boned student with careful habits, plans to be the first in his family to go to college. “There just were not a lot of universities then,” said his father, Liu Jie, who graduated from high school in 1980 and sells textile machinery. His son harbors hopes of getting into one of China’s top universities.
But the whole family was shaken by the results of his first try at the gao kao last June.
The night before the exam, he lingered at his parents’ bedside, unable to sleep for hours. “I was so nervous during the exam my mind went blank,” he said. He scored 432 points out of a possible 750, too low to be admitted even to a second-tier institution.
Silence reigned in the house for days afterward. “My mother was very angry,” he said. “She said, ‘All these years of raising you and washing your clothes and cooking for you, and you earn such a bad score.’
“I cried for half a month.”
Then the family arrived at a new plan: He would enroll in a military-style boarding school in Tianjin, devoting himself exclusively to test preparation, and retake the test this June.
Despite the annual school fee of 38,500 renminbi (about $5,640) — well above the average annual income for a Chinese family — he had plenty of company.
One of his classmates, Li Yiran, a cheerful 18-year-old, estimated that more than one-fourth of the seniors at their secondary school, Yangcun No. 1 Middle School, were “restudy” students.
Ms. Li said she learned the hard way about the school’s strict regimen. When her cellphone rang in class one day, the teacher smashed it against the radiator. Classes continue for three weeks straight, barely interrupted by a one-day break.
Days after most of their classmates left for home, Mr. Liu and Ms. Li were still holed up last week in their classrooms. Mr. Liu’s wrist was bruised from pressing the edge of his blue metal desk, piled with a foot-high stack of textbooks.
Ms. Li’s breakfast was a favorite among test-takers: a bread stick next to two eggs, symbolizing a 100 percent score.
Hours after they finished the test on Monday, both students had collected the answers from the district education bureau and begun the laborious process, with the help of their teachers, of estimating their scores.
Mr. Liu calculated that his score leaped by more than 100 points over last year’s dismal performance. But he was still downcast, uncertain whether he would make the cutoff to apply to top-tier universities. The cutoff mark can vary by an applicant’s place of residence and ethnicity.
Ms. Li, on the other hand, was exhilarated by her estimate of 482.5, figuring it was probably high enough for admittance to a college of the second rank.
By Wednesday evening, both were buoyed by news of the cutoff scores for their district. His estimated mark was well above the one needed to apply to first-tier schools, and hers was a solid five points above the notch for the second tier.
Before the test, Ms. Li’s aunt warned her that this was her last chance for a college degree. Even if she knelt before her mother and begged, her aunt said, her mother would refuse to let her take the test again.
But Ms. Li, a hardened veteran of not one but two gao kao ordeals, had a ready retort: “Come on. Even if my mother kneels down before me, I will refuse to take this test again.”
Huang Yuanxi contributed research