Why reforms to China’s college entrance exam are so revolutionary



China’s Ministry of Education has announced a major reform of the National College Entrance Examination, known as Gaokao. Under the proposed changes, the entry of new students to higher education will no longer be based purely on performance in three major subjects: mathematics, Chinese and English. It will now also take into account other subjects, as well as students\’ personal and social character.

These proposed changes, currently being piloted in Shanghai Municipality and Zhejiang Province, are likely to have a big impact on both individual Chinese students and on the country’s education system.

Gaokao under fire

The current Gaokao system, which can be compared to A Level exams in the UK, was established in 1977 and has been widely criticised. Chinese universities and colleges focus solely on scores from the test, taken each June, when considering applicants, with obvious consequences for students’ future life-chances.

In order to secure a good grade in the Gaokao, students concentrate on its core subjects from the beginning of secondary school, giving them a very narrow educational focus. Parents, concerned for their only child because of the persistence of China’s one-child policy, also try to ensure that their children go to schools which have a good record of success in the Gaokao.

Such intensive competition has had a very negative impact on students, on schools and on social equality. For instance, the Gaokao means there is an unequal weighting of educational resources at secondary level in favour of urban and professional families.

End to the narrow focus

Under the proposed reforms, tens of millions of Chinese students, besides studying the three core subjects examined at national level, will now have the opportunity to select three other subjects and to sit the examinations at the provincial level. In addition, results will be graded in A to E bands according to the relative performance of students within each province.

Students will also be evaluated on their personal and social qualities. This will require secondary school students to present a record of information relating to moral standards, physical health, general culture, such as hobbies, and social or community engagement and contribution, such as volunteering.

The planned reforms send a clear message to secondary school students and their teachers that a narrow focus on classroom rote learning, together with a lack of engagement with the wider community, may not be enough to ensure entry to higher education, which is so important for future life chances.

Impact on schools, subjects and teachers

The reform should have a major impact on the organisation and management of secondary education in China which, for almost 40 years has been dominated by the Gaokao. One effect is likely to be an end to the strict divide between the natural sciences and technology and the humanities and social sciences. Students will be given the opportunity to select and combine those subjects in which they are interested. This will require a reorganisation of school resources and also impact on teacher education and training.

Schools will also be required to provide additional resources and support for student participation in and contribution to the wider community. This will present challenges for school principals and other staff. This will require a reorganisation of school resources and also impact on teacher education and training

It’s likely that the impacts will not be confined to the secondary education system. The planned reform could create more space for higher education institutions to evaluate and select students based on their core and selected subjects, but also through an assessment of their personal and social characteristics. In the longer term, there should also be an impact on the employability of graduates, so employers also have a stake in the proposed reform.

Opposition likely

The pilots in Shanghai Municipality and Zhejiang should be appraised not only from the perspective of student academic choice and broader educational development, but also on how the reforms improve on the current Gaokao system.


This is very important in terms of feasibility. It would be optimistic to assume that the reform could be adopted nationwide by the 2017 target date without opposition. The need to overcome resource shortages in many schools and to reform teacher attitudes through training are two obstacles. Parents will also need to be persuaded of the merits of the change.

Given the conflict of values within Chinese society, it will not be easy to secure consensus about how university entrants should be evaluated on their moral standards, personality and community engagement. This is related to another fundamental issue in contemporary China – the relationship between equal opportunity in education and a broader social justice. This has yet to be considered in current debates or in government policy documents. But it should be, as it’s likely that the proposed Gaokao reform will have both educational and social effects.