Students under increasing stress in age of gaokao champions struggle to find answers.
This should have been a great summer for Lin Haoran, a student from Sichuan province in Southwest China. The young man recently sat the gaokao, the grueling university entrance examination, and was quietly confident that he had performed well enough to be offered a place at one of the country's most prestigious colleges.
However, his exhilaration was short lived.
The day before the results were set to be officially announced, local media descended on Lin's school after a tip-off that the student was the province's top scorer, or champion, in the test formally known as the National College Entrance Examination.
Lin was overjoyed at the news, as were his parents and teachers. He happily posed for photographs, gave interviews and provided study tips. The school also provided firecrackers to set off when the official announcement was made.
However, when the announcement came four hours later the smiles disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. The tip-off had been false and Lin wasn't the champion.
The reporters disappeared to track down the real champion and the harassed school principal put the firecrackers back in their box and went home. Lin and his parents stayed on, at a loss to understand what had happened.
"To many people, this sounds like a joke. Although it's unclear whether the claims about the exam result were malicious in intent, the incident was deeply disturbing to the student and his family," said Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing.
"Luckily, Lin has a cheerful nature and his mother and father aren't as obsessed about grades as some other parents, otherwise the consequences could have been too ghastly to contemplate," he said.
There was some consolation for Lin, too: Although, he didn't come out as top scorer, he performed well enough to ensure that top-class universities will be interested in him.
A grueling test
Gaokao is hugely important for Chinese students. Conducted in early June, the test centers on three main subjects for all students (mathematics, Chinese and a foreign language) and a combined paper on politics, geography and history for arts specialists, or chemistry, physics and biology for those of a scientific bent. This year, more than 9 million students sat the exam, and for many it's been the most important period of their lives so far.
The Ministry of Education prohibited the release of information relating to gaokao champions as far back as 2004, but in the eight years since, enthusiasm hasn't faded, instead it has become increasingly intense. Every year the highest-scoring students, their families and schools are subject to huge public and media scrutiny.
However, experts and academics have urged society to cool its worship of gaokao champions, believing that any possible benefits to the students and society are offset by the potential for harm because of the pressure exerted on the students.
The practice of worshipping gaokao champions should have been eradicated a long time ago, according to Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences under the Ministry of Education. However, the reality is that many educational institutions still prioritize the best examinees and the media spares no effort to cover the top students.
"I am sure that the majority of people are fully aware that these champions may simply be more attuned to exam-oriented education than other students. However, for middle schools and universities, producing or recruiting a gaokao champion means something else entirely," said Chu. Producing a champion is the best free advert a school can get, and can directly affect its future recruitment, government funding and donations from the public, he said.
"There's a huge profit chain behind gaokao champions. Nowadays, a student's grade is not only related to their own interests, but also becomes a means of justification for teachers, schools and local government leaders. Even business people are keen to take advantage of the reflected glory to promote their products," said Chu.
"When I was in high school, my parents were keen on buying me healthcare products promoted by gaokao champions. They spent a lot of money," said Qian Huizi, an English teacher at a private school in Beijing. "However, even though I had the lot, my grades were still only good enough to gain entrance to an unremarkable university." Qian urged students and parents who dream of champion status to "Please wake up as soon as possible."
However, the hero worship continues unabated. A top high school in Beijing affiliated to Renmin University of China recently denied that it had posted photos of this year's gaokao champions, who both attended the school, along a campus road to encourage others to study harder. The pictures sparked an online debate after a snapshot showed a student bowing in front of them.
Some observers believe that the exam, for which students prepare for three years, is less a test of intellectual ability and more about having a good memory and the regurgitation of facts learned by rote. "Maybe my conclusion is a little extreme, but in my opinion, the announcement that someone is a champion today lays the foundation that tomorrow he or she will be average. That's because the gaokao is just a test that stands for a part of a person's past and future. There is no consistent evidence to indicate a direct connection with future success," said Wang Xuming, a former spokesman for the Ministry of Education.
Guo Fang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Beijing's arts' gaokao champion in 1977, agreed. He said that over the short term the champions are rewarded, but in the long run the success, and attendant lionization, can disturb the normal process of development. "Overwhelmed by praise, people can easily become conceited and complacent. They stand a greater chance of failing to achieve their future goals," he said.
What's more, this sort of hero worship fundamentally strengthens class-consciousness among the young and serves to exacerbate inequality in the distribution of educational resources. It sends the wrong message and implies that education is simply a route to a good job and riches, rather than something helpful to society, said Chu Zhaohui.
The root of the problem
According to Xiong, people's enthusiasm for hero worship is a product of the exam system itself. "As long as the system doesn't change, it will be hard to change people's attitudes toward the champions," he said.
For Xiong, the grades, rankings and champions are simply the product of the gaokao admission system, which only treats the symptoms and not the cause of the hysteria surrounding the high fliers. He urged that the system should be reformed in a way that fundamentally promotes education as a means of enhancing each student's overall potential and not just their ability to recycle reams of often irrelevant information.
At present, the exam is considered the fairest and most scientific way of identifying talent, and has been seen in this light since the reform and opening-up policy of the late 1970s. "However, the negative impact is that it limits training across a whole range of skills and hampers the development of quality-oriented education. That fact should not be underestimated," said Wang Xuming. "We need to diversify the methods by which we identify talent to weaken the gaokao's impact on people's destinies. Society should take responsibility for stopping the speculation over the identity of the latest champion," said Wang.
Chu Zhaohui said a person's innate level of intelligence, their ability to absorb and implement knowledge and their personal interests are much more important influences on their development than exam grades. Society should take a more rational view too, because a candidate's future success and happiness cannot be determined simply by their gaokao score.
Contrast this with the experience of students in the United States, where success in the Scholastic Assessment Test is no guarantee of a place at a prestigious college. "The SAT only accounts for around 25 percent of the recruitment criteria and colleges often have their own methods of evaluating candidates, which are not based primarily on exam results," said Xiong Bingqi.
He wants to see educational reform that takes other countries' experiences into account and does away with the score-oriented method, allowing students to be judged by a number of different criteria.
"We should establish a wide-ranging evaluation system by which we can gradually transfer the rights currently held by the authorities to professional organizations, universities and students," he said. China's education system is aimed at benefiting the nation as a whole, but often fails to benefit the students themselves because they lack intellectual rigor and the ability to work things out for themselves.
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Zhang Yuchen contributed to this story.