Zhongkao, Not Gaokao, Now the Make-or-Break Exam, Parents Say
SHANGHAI — Standing in Shanghai’s drizzling rain, Chen Lianting waits for her firstborn to finish the first important examination of his life — the high school entrance exam, or zhongkao.
“The zhongkao is far more important than the gaokao now,” she tells Sixth Tone, explaining the exam’s importance by comparing it with the country’s national university entrance examination.
The parents Sixth Tone spoke to all agree that the zhongkao is even more important for their children’s academic development than the gaokao. “Parents value the exam so much that my colleagues with children taking the zhongkao this year have taken several days off to make sure everything’s right for their children during the exam,” Chen says, holding her baby son in her arms.
China has kicked off its zhongkao exam season, which lasts until early July, with more than 15.4 million 15-year-old middle school students expected to take part. Exams have been held in roughly half of the country’s provincial-level regions, including Shanghai, Zhejiang, Shandong, and Sichuan, while other regions such as Beijing, Henan, and Guangdong are holding theirs this week.
Part of the reason for parents’ anxiety is the zhongkao’s 50% pass rate as dictated by the Ministry of Education. Roughly half of middle school students go on to regular high schools, with the chance to take the gaokao three years later and be admitted to regular undergraduate universities, while the lower-scoring half either study in a vocational secondary school or drop out completely.
There are growing debates about the future of the zhongkao. Critics say it places excessive pressure on students and parents, and is also unfair to lower-scoring students who they say are denied good career prospects at a young age. Meanwhile, proponents argue that the zhongkao is needed to help tackle labor shortages in the job market in the long run.
At last year’s “two sessions,” or lianghui, a Sichuan University professor proposed postponing the choice between regular and vocational education from middle school graduation to high school graduation, so that every student can have a regular high school education.
“Allowing students to make such critical choices when they are more mature complies with the natural laws of adolescent growth and development. That also allows more children with potential to make better choices for their future,” he told local media.
Make-or-break at 15
Although exam questions vary by region, all zhongkao students take exams in Chinese, mathematics, one foreign language of choice, usually English, and additional subjects such as physics, chemistry, or history.
Based on their estimated scores and referencing previous years’ admissions data, students then apply for a list of their preferred high schools. Each student is admitted to only one school — the highest-ranked school on their list for which they meet the score requirements.
“Every year, more than 100 students get the same score (in a city), therefore a single point could make a huge difference in ranking, and mean different schools for a student,” a father surnamed Zheng in Xiamen, Fujian province, tells Sixth Tone. His daughter finished her zhongkao exam on Monday.
Influenced by China’s imperial exam system, both the zhongkao and gaokao are considered by families across the country as crucial steps in climbing the social ladder, particularly for less well-off children.
Even though vocational high school graduates have an extremely high employment rate of 95%, many of these are “low-end” jobs with little upward mobility. Parents therefore often have negative views of vocational education, particularly at the high school level, with students who end up in vocational high schools typically labeled as chasheng, or “bad students.”
For a father surnamed Ni from Shanghai, going to a vocational school could be detrimental for his son, who just completed his zhongkao exam. “Middle school graduates are still too young and mentally immature. Going to a vocational school and ending up in a bad crowd could ruin his life. Going to a regular high school, on the other hand, even if he can’t make progress academically, at least he won’t become a bad person,” he says.
The government’s greater investment in regular high school education also reinforces negative perceptions of vocational high schools. Vocational schools receive less state investment even though costs are higher, Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the state-run China National Academy of Educational Sciences, tells Sixth Tone.
Eager to give their children the best possible chance of avoiding vocational education, parents like Chen in Shanghai seek out ways to differentiate their children from other children. Last year, while her eldest son’s classmates were taking online courses during the pandemic, she found an offline cram school for her son.
This fierce competition and parental expectations are causing huge psychological strains for zhongkao students. Almost every day for the past year, Shanghai student Zheng Jindong, who is ranked among the top 20 students in his year at school, spent 17 hours studying to prepare for the zhongkao.
“Sometimes the pressure is from my family and teachers, sometimes it’s from myself,” says the 15-year-old. At one point, Zheng asked his mother to buy him sleeping pills because of insomnia. “All I can think of are test questions when I lie in bed with my eyes closed,” he says.
Zheng is not alone. Almost 15% of children in China aged between 10 to 16 years old have different degrees of depression, according to data from a study led by the China Institute of Psychology in 2022. In late March, seven teenagers committed suicide in the space of five days in Tianjin, with several reportedly due to bad academic performance.
Aware of people’s negative views of vocational high schools, policymakers have rolled out a series of measures in recent years to improve public perceptions. Last year, the government began allowing vocational school students to take the gaokao and apply for regular undergraduate universities for the first time. It has also pushed for enterprises to attach greater importance to vocational skills and upgrade the professional title system for skilled workers.
The government’s efforts to raise the status of vocational education are also driven by a structural imbalance in China’s job market, which has an oversupply of university graduates and an undersupply of skilled personnel with specialized vocational training. According to Chu Zhaohui, a normal society should have more graduates employed for their specific vocational skills, rather than many graduates with only general knowledge.
“The key for zhongkao reform is to make sure it’s separating students for what they are good at instead of a tool for social stratification,” he says.
Hearts and minds
Despite government efforts, the traditional mindset is proving difficult to eliminate. Part of the reason is a widespread belief that the zhongkao admission rate is lower than that of the gaokao.
With China expanding its higher education system since the 1980s, the overall higher education admission rate for gaokao students has increased dramatically from 58.9% in 2001 to over 90% in 2021. Meanwhile, the regular high school admission rate for zhongkao students has only increased slightly from 58.25% in 2001 to 64.92% in 2021.
Sharp contrasts in admission rates mean those who have been admitted to regular high schools at zhongkao have all but secured a higher education institution. At the same time, zhongkao students face age and other restrictions on retaking the exam, while the gaokao allows students to retake the exam as many times as they want.
However, the 90% gaokao figure includes admissions for both regular universities and vocational colleges. For regular universities only, the admissions rate has actually fallen from 51.51% in 2001 to 44.40% in 2021.
State media outlet Xinhua has tried to clarify that the zhongkao admission rate for regular high schools is not necessarily lower than the gaokao admission rate for regular universities. But the widespread belief that the zhongkao is more difficult to pass than the gaokao is “rooted in the hearts of the people,” according to a commentary from local media.
Pressure on students is also coming from teachers themselves. After this year’s zhongkao in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, a father found that his academically underperforming son skipped the exam under the influence of his teacher. Teachers in China are often placed under huge pressure to boost their students’ scores, with some teachers threatened with suspension if their students perform poorly.
Liu Cuicui, a mother in Hefei, Anhui province, whose daughter is preparing to take the zhongkao next year, recognizes that her anxieties about the importance of the zhongkao are probably more imagined than real. But she sees her anxieties shared by other parents at her daughter’s school, some of whom are sending their academically underperforming children to smaller cities to improve their chances of getting into a regular high school.
“It won’t be easy to stop people from stereotyping vocational education, and it sure will take time. Parents don’t want to bet the future of their children on such uncertainties,” she says.
Additional reporting: Zhu Yinran; Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: A mother encourages her son before he takes the zhongkao in Beijing, June 24, 2023. VCG)