Exactly three decades ago, the national college entrance examination was reinstituted, much to the delight of an education-starved nation. This annual exam, adopted at the outset of the People’s Republic as the sole measure of academic aptitude for entry into colleges and universities, was abolished during the chaotic years of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) when it was misinterpreted as a means of alienating youth from society and shunning political orientation.
To be eligible for a university berth back then, students had to be responsible employees and show sound political integrity. But because they had been away from classrooms for so long, learning could be a struggle. As part of the radical higher education reform at this time, the length of study at most Chinese universities was shortened to two to three years. This, along with abridged curriculums, abandoning of some major courses and the neglect of academic performance records, saw a drastic drop in teaching levels and student competence.
When the 10-year political upheaval came to a close, many of the damaging policies and practices were fortunately discarded or reversed, and China gradually embarked on a path of economic development. Envisaging the pivotal role of higher education in building vast talent pools for the country, the Chinese leadership decided in 1977 to resume the college entrance examination in China. This policy shift has changed the destiny of millions of young people by giving them access to university education based on their own academic merits. This process has also been an important part of improving the fate of the nation, as many qualified and motivated young people were now available to assist with national revitalization programs.
Despite the irrefutable fact that the entrance exam has been hugely instrumental in picking out talented youths-recent statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Education have put the total university recruitment since 1977 at 36 million-this well-established and once much loved testing system has come under fire in recent years. Two principal arguments have emerged. One is that the somewhat stereotyped written tests, confined only to a few basic subjects, have resulted in an unbalanced, exam-oriented curriculum in compulsory education, and run counter to cultivating innovative and creative minds. The other is the stress that students are placed under, given the fierce competitive nature of the tests and the job market, knowing that their future largely rests on one exam. It has also been suggested that the system can exclude a student with specific skills or talents from pursuing an opportunity to study, if they fail an exam in which they may have little interest.
None of these controversies provide solid enough argument for the replacement of this national testing system. It is still the system that guarantees maximum equality and fairness for all test-takers and is the most efficient method for university enrollment on a nationwide basis. This, however, does not mean that the system ought to remain in its current format. In fact, pilot schemes are underway to prune the negative aspects and include aspects such as the introduction of a student interview, two entrance exams in a year and other criteria to select university freshmen. These all augur well to help the exam system evolve into a more realistic remedy of exposing and nurturing the best talent China has to offer.