A cartoon that is well known to test prep-averse educators depicts a group of animals lined up in front of a man sitting behind a desk. Elephant, fish, seal, dog, monkey and penguin accounted for, the man proclaims: “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree.” As the sole bridge to university admissions, China’s gaokao exam in its current form mirrors that approach. Criticism has been ubiquitous, and change is on its way. The central government has signaled reforms that include a multi-evaluation system and a test program that could even lead to a Chinese version of the U.S. College Board’s Advanced Placement college credit approach.
China’s need for an innovation economy has created an educational infrastructure that is surprisingly reform oriented. Many of the changes being made are emulations of East Asian and Western models, adapted to a Chinese context. Still, the results they produce over the next decade will be of interest to Western education leaders, for use as a comparative model for disparities in secondary and higher education.
U.S. universities today float academically adrift, parents both American and Chinese continue to fund lucrative tutoring enterprises in hopes of receiving that coveted Harvard admissions letter, and government education programs in both nations are pushing in different directions. The Common Core State Standards recently unveiled in the U.S. demand greater rigor and uniformity for K-12 education. Standards for English language arts and math have been rolled out and praised by an education community looking to jump on the funding bandwagon. China, meanwhile, has stepped up efforts to encourage experimental models, looking to Western examples for educational administration and building its own fleet of charter schools.
University exams in both countries are being reformed to broaden the student base. The recently released gaokao reforms deemphasize English while offering an opportunity to take multiple tests in a subject, a boon for students who concentrate on technical subjects in their one shot. Other potential reforms signal a shift to deemphasize the test itself as the key university link and increase the weighting of other admissions criteria.
What of Chinese students who have abandoned gaokao hopes in favor of foreign universities? They face a battery of TOEFL, AP, ACT and SAT exams to complete their admissions portfolio. However, the College Board’s recently announced changes to the SAT will benefit international students by reducing obscure vocabulary and making the writing section optional in 2016. The math section, as we know, presents little difficulty for most East Asian students.
Chinese students are an important source of revenue for many U.S. universities. Total annual Chinese enrollment rose nearly 25 percent to 194,029 in the 2011/12 academic year, representing more than a quarter of the international student population. Other East Asian nations, India, and all other top ten countries bar Saudi Arabia meanwhile saw a marked decline in U.S. university enrollments.
In China, international enrollment in top Chinese universities, such as Tsinghua and Peking, continues to increase. But if the Asian higher education market is to going to match top international standards, more needs to be done to facilitate undergraduate success. More than a hundred mathematicians at high schools across China, including the High School attached to Tsinghua University, are drafting plans to pilot college credit courses by the 2015 graduation year. Potential courses include linear algebra, integral calculus, and inferential statistics. Four Chinese universities, including Tsinghua and Peking, currently recognize the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) system as a factor influencing admissions. Students at key high schools have long been exposed to the AP system and a native model would quickly be assimilated into the educational infrastructure.
A homegrown AP system, albeit with Chinese characteristics, could do much to ease gaokao pressures on students and families. Certainly, the changes would take time to influence international university enrollments and institutional confidence, yet they would most certainly help a greater number of capable Chinese students climb that tree.
Tyler Shelden is a curriculum facilitator and researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. His area of focus includes strategic/innovative policy and international education.