Testing, Testing … Big

Does China’s nerve-racking gaokao college-entrance exam really identify the country’s best and brightest, or is it even sillier and more unfair than the SAT?

BY CHRISTINA LARSON

SHANGHAI — For three days each June, all of China quiets to a whisper. In Shanghai, the ever-present construction crews are furloughed, and thousands of uniformed signal guards are deployed to stop drivers from sounding their horns. Similar noise-reduction campaigns are put in place in other cities across the country. The aim is to provide the most peaceful atmosphere possible for China’s roughly 9 million high school seniors, who, armed with yellow pencils, dutifully scribble answers on an exam they believe will shape their destiny: the gaokao, or "big test."

The gaokao is China’s college-entrance exam, the world’s largest high-stakes test. Everyone takes it at the same time — June 7 to 9 this year — and has only one shot. It lasts nine hours total and includes segments on math, Chinese, and English, plus two optional subjects, such as geography, chemistry, or physics. The results are the sole criteria determining college placement in mainland China. While a high score can win entry for a poor farmer’s son in remote Gansu province to elite Peking University, a lackluster score can relegate him to an underfunded backwater school with peeling paint and unqualified professors, or shut fast the doors to college entirely.

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