Exam Anxiety in China

The Toronto Globe and Mail recently ran an article about China’s university entrance exam system, the “gaokao”.  I didn’t know that “gaokao” meant “big test”, but it seems like an apt description.  The article nicely summarizes some of the pros and cons of such systems, as well as the impact on Canadian university entrance. 

One of the theoretical advantages of the gaokao and other standardized tests is the ability to compare everyone on the same basis, so that high school grading bias and other factors are eliminated.  While this is very attractive for university admissions people, we also recognize that theory and reality don’t always agree.  For example, how good is the test in measuring academic potential at university and beyond?  It’s really only a single data point, derived from a two-day test where stress, illness and various other factors may play a role too.  In some ways, these tests may only identify students who are good at preparing for and taking tests.  The article also discusses the stress issues in this system, that sadly can even lead to suicide.

Like other Canadian universities mentioned in the article, we ask for the gaokao results if they are available, but they are only a piece of the admissions puzzle.  For applicants who are just finishing high school, the results come out too late for us to consider since our admission decisions are finalized in May.  Like any other applicants, for those coming from the Chinese secondary school system we want to see the high school results, language testing results, any other test results if available (e.g. SAT), and descriptions of extracurricular activities.  Putting all the pieces together we try to form an overall impression of the applicant’s academic strength and ability to succeed in our program.  I think this has some benefits over using the single exam data point, although it’s a lot more work for us.



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