The Stress Test: Waiting for ‘Gaokao’
This is the first part of a series on China’s high-stakes college entrance exam, the gaokao. View the entire series here.
Zoey Liu, a senior student at a top-notch high school in Beijing, didn’t think COVID-19 would flare up again. The fact that it’s reappeared less than a month before the gaokao, China’s grueling college entrance examination, has only made matters worse.
“I didn’t take it seriously when I heard about the first new case and thought it was under control,” Liu tells Sixth Tone. “But now I know I underestimated the severity of the second wave.”
Since June 11, Beijing has identified 329 new cases as of Wednesday. Before this, China’s capital hadn’t reported a single local infection in nearly two months. Health authorities on June 22 declared the new outbreak in the capital to be “controllable with a low transmissibility,” compared with China's initial outbreak.
The second wave of infections immediately sparked concerns on whether the gaokao should be deferred, but authorities have underscored the series of exams will go ahead as scheduled on July 7-8.
Liu is among 10.7 million students who will take this year’s gaokao, an increase of 400,000 from the previous year. With another nearly 1 million supervisors and test administrators scattered across over 7,000 exam sites at nearly 400,000 exam rooms nationwide, a Ministry of Education official said it will be the largest public event in China since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
After the first new case was reported in Beijing earlier in June, Liu’s school began more stringent routine checks of students’ temperatures. On June 16, Dongcheng District, where Liu lives with her parents, was labeled a medium-risk zone. That night, the government announced all schools in the city would be suspended again from the following day.
And it’s not just Beijing. From nervous parents in the eastern province of Zhejiang to reimposed lockdown protocols in Jilin’s schools in northeast China and delayed semesters in Guangdong province in the south, the disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak have affected students preparing for the gaokao across the country.
While most Western nations consider a wide range of factors — aptitude tests, extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendation letters — before admitting a student, the gaokao score is, under most circumstances, the only determinant in university admission in China.
Unlike college entrance exams like the SATs in the U.S. and the U.K.’s “A-Levels,” which can be taken multiple times a year, the gaokao is a one-off exam. Students who fail to score well need to register again as a high school senior to take the gaokao the following year.
The nationwide exam is a major milestone for millions of young Chinese — particularly those from rural areas, for whom enrollment at a good university is difficult but regarded as their best shot at a bright future.
On March 31, China’s national education authority announced the gaokao would be postponed for a month to July 7-8 to ensure the exam’s safety and fairness. The move aimed to reduce the pandemic’s impact on students, especially those in the poverty-stricken areas, where many had limited internet access to the online courses conducted nationwide amid the lockdown.
Incidentally, the change in scheduling for the gaokao this year marks the first time the examination has been postponed nationwide since it resumed in 1977. Then, it was suspended for a decade during the Cultural Revolution.
As China’s COVID-19 outbreak eased starting in April, students preparing for the gaokao returned to school after months of home schooling during the strict pandemic control measures in place since February.
In Beijing, Liu has her sights set on a French major at China’s prestigious Peking University. She says, however, that she may have to reconsider that goal after a dissatisfying performance in her last practice examination.
“I became sluggish staying at home for such a long period,” she tells Sixth Tone. “But I feel like I am gradually getting back to my normal state after resuming school.”
Out of safety concerns, China’s Ministry of Education requested all students and exam staff to take daily temperature measurements 14 days in advance and wear face masks before entering the exam halls.
In the exam room, those in regions deemed low-risk can decide whether or not they want masks, while for those in medium- and high-risk zones, masks are mandatory. Beijing's education authority has also required all candidates to self-quarantine for two weeks before the gaokao. Currently, Beijing has four designated high-risk zones and 26 medium-risk zones.
In coping with the city’s second wave of the coronavirus, parents in Beijing have expressed concerns, emphasizing the ensuing stress. Gao Lan, the mother of another high-achieving student, says she worries the sudden closure of high schools could lead to mood swings in her daughter while she prepares for the gaokao.
On the morning of June 16, Gao’s daughter was requested by her class teacher to take all her belongings back home, though there wasn’t yet a government notice saying schools would be closed again.
“There were rumors about the suspension of schools, and teachers may have known. But my daughter didn’t see it coming,” says Gao. “She’s sad she couldn’t say goodbye to her teachers or take graduation photos with her friends.”
Yu Tianyi, a Beijing-based expert in mood management and interpersonal relationships, has been counseling an increasing number of high school students since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“Because they couldn’t go to school, communication between friends decreased dramatically,” says Yu. “For senior high school students, their inner needs of intimacy and identity cannot be met, which may cause a series of interpersonal problems, making students, who have particularly heavy academic pressure, feel weak.”
Wu Yuhao, another gaokao candidate from Zhejiang province, says his parents seem more nervous about the exam than him. “They’ve been nagging and chattering at dinner every day since I started online classes,” he says. “They want to help me (academically), but they’re unable to do what they hope for, so they can only show their concern and care through simple routines like giving me better meals.”
Wu returned to his school in Taizhou City on April 13. Then, students were required to wear masks outside the classroom on campus. There were partitions on the dining tables to avoid communication with adjacent people while eating. And every day after school, every corner of the campus was sprayed with disinfectant. “This situation lasted for over a month and then gradually relaxed,” he recalls.
Ranking among the top 20 in his grade, Wu hopes to get into Zhejiang University, a leading provincial university. The pandemic has only strengthened his resolve. “Our teachers assigned more homework than usual during the online classes. It meant that I was forced to learn a lot,” he says. “One thing is clear during this pandemic: I have to do the right thing at the right time. So I’m more disciplined than before.”
Liu Jian — who has no relation to Zoey Liu — is from a rural area in the northeastern province of Jilin. His hometown of Shulan reimposed lockdown measures in May after 12 people were confirmed to have the coronavirus over three days. Following this, high school students in their graduate year who resumed classes in mid-April were asked to go home on May 10 when the region was labeled a high-risk COVID-19 zone.
“A lot of us were on the brink of a mental breakdown,” says Liu Jian. “We thought things were much better, but they weren’t. There was so much pressure on us, as the gaokao was right around the corner.”
According to Jilin-based psychologist Zang Kai, the suspension of offline classes again in the wake of fresh cases has left gaokao candidates more prone to psychological stress than their counterparts in areas untouched by the resurgence of the virus.
“Students were eager to return to school for an attitude adjustment, but within days, they were asked to go back to where they were before because of the new cases,” says Zang. “Over and over again, they are likely to feel fragile and insecure.”
Many examinees in previous years sought psychological counseling after noticing a decrease in learning efficiency caused by tension, but this year Zang has heard more questions surrounding parent-child relationships.
“Most students are not as efficient while home schooling during the pandemic, and parents intervene when they see bad study habits. This leads to family conflicts and further affects the learning efficiency of children, which makes them anxious,” Zang says.
“Even if they want to solve their psychological problems, students are reluctant to spare time for counseling, because they worry the pandemic has already delayed their study time,” Zang adds.
From May 18, Shulan started conducting COVID-19 tests on all its 3,005 gaokao candidates. On June 3, as Shulan was again categorized low-risk, the local government stated all high school seniors could resume school.
With this order, the faculty at Liu Jian’s high school implemented stricter regulations in the interest of safety. All gaokao candidates are now required to stay in the school dorm once returning to campus.
This is in addition to other measures the school had originally adopted earlier this year to contain the spread of the virus. Students must wear masks, bring disinfectant wipes, maintain social distancing, and disinfect their classrooms twice a day. Some plans in their daily schedule, such as morning practices, have been canceled.
A class of 50 students is also split into two groups that sit in separate classrooms. Teachers give lessons in one classroom where a video camera streams the live feed to students in the other room.
Liu Jian says he wasn’t anxious about the coronavirus in the beginning. When the rest of China struggled to contain the outbreak, Jilin province remained relatively safe with only a few reported cases, which were under control. But he did worry about the delayed gaokao, which meant struggling with preparation for another month.
However, for Liu Jian, the effects of the pandemic are not all negative. In mid-March, he considered taking the gaozhi examination — the entrance test for higher vocational colleges, as he wasn’t confident enough about passing the gaokao. But with a second COVID-19 wave in Shulan, the Jilin provincial education authority postponed the gaozhi exam to an as-yet unspecified date after the gaokao.
“It gives me a chance to take a leap of faith and be bold,” he says. “Even if I fail in the gaokao, I still have the gaozhi as my backup plan.”
Over 3,000 kilometers south of Shulan, a senior student surnamed Lu — who asked not to disclose her full name — says her final semester was supposed to start a week earlier than scheduled in her hometown of Sihui in Guangdong province. But it was canceled in the wake of the initial outbreak.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lu was a little scared and didn’t dare go out. “At that time, I was very worried about studying in my senior year, as I had no clue about the kind of policy the school would provide to deal with it,” she says. “When I received the online class notice later, though I was still under pressure, I was relieved because at least I could continue studying.”
Since returning to school late April, Lu wakes up at 6 a.m., arrives at 7:30 a.m., and gets home at around 10 p.m. After roughly 14 hours at school, she finally goes to bed at midnight after finishing homework. “Class time has been longer, P.E. lessons have been canceled, and the amount of homework has increased a little,” she says.
As the gaokao draws closer and more tests are scheduled, the class atmosphere has become extra serious. “I was a little flustered at first about the postponement of the gaokao because the extra month made me feel a little uneasy,” Lu says.
But under the care and attention of teachers, she says the pressure has become a driving force. “Now I think I have one more month to fight, and I should redouble my efforts.” She hopes to try her best and enter the police academy, and if she fails, she will likely join the military.
Lu’s mother is concerned about her psychological state after learning that the make-or-break entrance examination had been postponed. She often chats with Lu to make sure she’s doing OK and takes her on hikes over the weekends to relieve the stress of studies during the week.
Before the outbreak, Lu commuted on a bicycle. But now, her mother drops her off and picks her up from school. “Every night when I see my mother waiting for me at the school gate, all the clutter in my mind just goes away.”
Additional reporting: Wu Ziyi.
(Header image: Students pray for good luck in the “gaokao” at Nanning Confucius Temple in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, June 25, 2020. Yu Jing/CNS/People Visual)