The annual Chinese college entrance examination, known as the "Gaokao", drew to a close earlier this month with nearly ten million students in attendance. While the high-stakes nature remains the same, this year's Gaokao was significantly different than past years.
Starting in 2017, the Gaokao saw huge changes in format and, more importantly for international institutions, the way scores are reported. These changes are being tested in key provinces. Based on the outcome, it is highly expected that this new Gaokao will see a full roll-out across China over the next few years.
Changes to Gaokao Format and Scoring
In 2014, Zhejiang and Shanghai were the first provinces to initiate the changes. As the changes affected students entering high school, students from these provinces first took the reformed exam in 2017. Under the new exam, Chinese, Math and English are compulsory subjects. (Under the old exam, three social science subjects or three natural science subjects were compulsory.) Although students can only take the Chinese and Math exams once in June (the same as the old Gaokao), they can take the English exam twice and select the highest English result.
In addition to the three compulsory subjects, students must choose three from up to seven subjects (physics, chemistry, biology, geography, history, politics and technology). Students can take each of the three exams twice and choose the best score from each.
As for the scoring system of the new Gaokao, there will be two scores for each elective subject: a raw score and a “grade score.” A raw score represents a students absolute performance on the exam. A student’s raw scores will be compared to all test takers to create the students grade score.
For example, a student's raw score on the physics exam may equal 70 points. If this score ranks in the 99th percentile (top-1%) of all test takers, then his grade score would equal 100 according to the calculation scheme of the ‘grade score’. This grade score will then go towards their total score. All in all, there are 21 grade score divisions ranging from 40 to 100 points for elective subjects. The three compulsory subjects will still only use raw scores.
Implications for students
Given that the three elective subjects now include relative scoring, students may choose their three elective subjects for strategic reasons instead of purely academic interests. A student, and their parents and teachers, could estimate the quality and quantity of students who will sign up for each elective subject and choose the subjects where they have the best perceived chance of success.
This behavior could explain what happened during the pilot Gaokao in Zhejiang where relatively few students signed up for physics, which was assumed to be the most difficult subject. In contrast, technology became increasingly popular as it is considered the easiest option.
Leaving scoring tactics aside, the new Gaokao policies encourage students to take a more individualized approach by selecting subjects according to their interests. This flexibility plus ability to re-take certain exams should also relieve of pressure on students. A large criticism of the old Gaokao model is that its standardized, single-attempt format ignored individual strengths and left students feeling stressed and overburdened.
However, these changes also force students to make earlier decisions about their education and career paths. Similar to A-level in the UK, the subjects which students take are closely related to university majors that students can apply for in the future.
Future rollout & implications for international institutions
The new Gaokao has already been tested in Zhejiang and Shanghai, and the reforms will be implemented in other provinces in China through 2019 with all students scheduled to take the revised exam by 2022. As more foreign universities accept the Gaokao for admission, institutions should realize how it the reforms affect Chinese students going abroad.
Nowadays, an increasing number of foreign universities accept the Gaokao for direct entry into the first year of a bachelor’s degree. Chinese students are paying more attention to these universities as they can apply to schools without having to spend half a year or more preparing for additional tests (like SAT or A-level) or participating in a foundation program.
International institutions accepting Gaokao scores must update their entry requirements as the reforms take effect. Some institutions have ignored the changes and list incorrect information. (For example, the 2017 entry requirements for a large Australian university still show the total score of Gaokao in Zhejiang as 810 points despite being lowered to 750 points last year; for Shanghai, it is still listed as 600 points instead of 660 points.) Unless corrected, outdated score requirements will lead to missed applications and poor admissions decisions.
Time will tell whether these changes in the Gaokao will affect demand for international education in China. Historically, the rigidity of the Gaokao pushed students towards international schools, and students would begin preparing to study abroad years before applying to university. With added flexibility, more Chinese students could decide to stay on a domestic university-preparation track. Institutions trying to gain the attention of Chinese students may take note as implementing the new Gaokao into the admissions process could make it easier for students to apply.