Dispatch

The Big Test

Does China's nerve-racking gaokao college-entrance exam really identify the country's best and brightest, or is it even sillier and more unfair than the SAT?

SHANGHAI — For three days each June, all of China quiets to a whisper. In Shanghai, the ever-present construction crews are furloughed, and thousands of uniformed signal guards are deployed to stop drivers from sounding their horns. Similar noise-reduction campaigns are put in place in other cities across the country. The aim is to provide the most peaceful atmosphere possible for China's roughly 9 million high school seniors, who, armed with yellow pencils, dutifully scribble answers on an exam they believe will shape their destiny: the gaokao, or "big test."

The gaokao is China's college-entrance exam, the world's largest high-stakes test. Everyone takes it at the same time -- June 7 to 9 this year -- and has only one shot. It lasts nine hours total and includes segments on math, Chinese, and English, plus two optional subjects, such as geography, chemistry, or physics. The results are the sole criteria determining college placement in mainland China. While a high score can win entry for a poor farmer's son in remote Gansu province to elite Peking University, a lackluster score can relegate him to an underfunded backwater school with peeling paint and unqualified professors, or shut fast the doors to college entirely.

The test is seen, rightly, as a bright dividing line in a young person's life. Do well, and you've earned a chance to join the elite; do poorly, and your prospects dim dramatically. That might sound harsh, but when the test was first launched, the vision behind it was utopian. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong shut universities and sent intellectuals to labor in fields, China's universities were reopened and the entrance exam was launched in 1977. Like the United States' SAT, which was designed by Princeton University psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham and first administered in 1926, the aim of the gaokao was to identify the country's best and brightest -- to make high test scores, not political patronage or guanxi (relationships), the ticket to a university education. In short, the dream was to enshrine a meritocracy.

But pinning such grand hopes on a single yardstick invariably leads to discontent. In the 1980s, U.S. journalists such as Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, and the Atlantic's James Fallows began to question whether the SATs, as the latter put it, "really discover the best and the brightest?" Educators in the United States have also wondered whether a focus on testing distracts from other forms of learning. So too in China, it turns out. Although the SAT and gaokao are quite different in their actual content, Chinese educators, writers, parents, and students now assail the gaokao along similar lines: Is the test fair? Is the information useful? Do the wealthy have a head start? Does an emphasis on test preparation crowd out other learning? Yet absent clear alternatives, no large-scale reform seems imminent.

Charisette Li is now a senior at prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou. The daughter of a middle-school teacher, she grew up in the blackened industrial city of Dongguan. Gregarious and cheerful, with hip chunky glasses, a quick smile, and a penchant for American pop music, she achieved a high score that earned her admission to a top university. When she graduates in a month, she will begin an internship at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, an enviable perch. She is, in other words, someone who emerged a winner from China's high-stakes testing system. But looking back to her time boarding at Dongguan Experimental High School, she now questions the all-consuming imperative of studying for gaokao:

In high school, everything I did was about the gaokao. I can't even imagine what I was going to do or be after school. The only thing I have to care about was to get into a top university.... My classmates and I spent almost all our time on campus. We were not allowed to go out on weekdays, only maybe Sunday afternoon to buy some things, with permission. Or on Saturday night, our parents could visit. Mostly, to go out you needed a ticket from the teacher that you had an important reason. Otherwise we were mostly locked in. They thought we had to be locked in, in order to guarantee that we would all be on track. They thought: The stricter the rules, the better our grades will be. Usually our parents don't ask questions; they just accept the system.

The oddest thing, as Li sees it now, is that what she learned for the test wasn't terribly useful afterward. Once she started at university, she quickly forgot the battery of facts she had devoted the previous four years to memorizing. It wasn't "important to real life," she says, concluding, "All the students were working so hard toward one goal; I just did it without thinking, 'What for?' But now, I'm different -- now I want to know the reason for what I do."

Li's concerns about the test -- that the pressure is overwhelming, but its assessment of intelligence or future potential is imprecise -- are hardly unique. Among Chinese researchers and educators, criticism has been bubbling for years. Last year, even the state-run China Daily newspaper wrote about the results of a study tracking 1,000 top gaokao scorers over 30 years. Not one, the paper reported, had an outstanding career afterward.

Others worry about whether the test is truly fair: Do students who attend the best secondary schools and whose parents fork out for expensive test-prep tutors inevitably earn the highest scores? The gaokao is "expected to be the great equalizer, to ensure that a peasant's son from Gansu has the same doors open as a Shanghai official. But it is a noble lie," one disillusioned university official told me. "The test is not a useful measure, and the notion that society is built on equal access to opportunity is false."

A few students are now seeking to get around the test entirely. As Shanghai-based education consultant Lucia Pierce told me, an increasing number of wealthy Chinese students seek to be admitted to colleges in the United States and elsewhere (and thus study for the SATs instead). A handful of elite colleges in China now offer limited early-admissions slots that don't require the gaokao, typically for students who've won national awards in high school or taken additional tests offered by the schools. Yet both options are practical only for a sliver of graduates.

As for reforming the gaokao, the prospects seem dim. Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Peking University High School, recently penned a lengthy essay in the Diplomat exploring possible alternatives, but in the end admitted a failure of imagination:

So, if we were to start from scratch and try to build an alternative to the gaokao, we would end up with as the only viable alternative...the gaokao. That's what a lot of people tend to forget: that given the complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions, given the stifling poverty that most Chinese find themselves in, and given China's endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China's [scarce] education resources.

That sentiment is fairly widespread. In a country where corruption and suspicion are endemic, many believe that everything has a price, even favorable teacher recommendations and grade-point averages. The test, for all its brutality, does produce a clean numerical score -- and those scores can be ranked. As a recent graduate of Beijing Language and Culture University, a midtier school, told me: "If there was no gaokao, there would only be guanxi."

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Coronation of Erdogan

Turkey's ruling party is in line to win the election by a landslide on June 12. Can anyone stop them from changing the country's constitution?

ISTANBUL — Durdane Coskun is in a frantic rush. A housewife with three children who spends most of her time at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaign office in the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Beykoz, she organizes meetings, answers phone calls, distributes brochures and flags, and sometimes even cooks for more than 20 other volunteers. Her colleagues dash around the office, which is painted in a dull yellow and covered with large portraits of a smiling Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country's prime minister, and a grainy picture of Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk, praying with his deputies, hands open, palms facing skyward.

"My waking hours are dedicated to this cause," Coskun says. "I take care of the household chores after midnight." Then, with a big smile on a face neatly framed with a colorful, silk headscarf, she says, "It's for the love of our prime minister, our country. It's for the future of our people."

With less than two days left before Turks go to the ballot box in parliamentary elections on Sunday, June 12, the AKP is riding high in the polls. With thousands of volunteers like Coskun working around the clock, there is little doubt that the party will win a landslide victory for the third time.

It's still an open question, though, just what the AKP's agenda will be. Erdogan, who has won the admiration of many in the past eight years for bringing political and economic stability to a formerly crisis-prone country, has long promised an inclusive, pluralistic constitution -- if he wins a third term. "After the 2011 elections, we will definitely make a new constitution," he told Taraf newspaper in August 2010. Turkey's current constitution is a relic of a bygone military era, a straitjacket designed by the country's adamantly secular generals in the aftermath of the 1980 coup to curb civil liberties. But many fear that this new constitution may entrench the AKP's power and weaken the opposition, including the country's large and unhappy Kurdish minority.

Indeed, Erdogan's fiery campaign rhetoric has polarized the country. His frequent references to the opposition leader's minority religious identity (Kemal Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi Muslim) were interpreted as derogatory. Recently, he said he would have "hanged" Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of the outlawed Kurdish separatist group, putting more strain on the already tense situation with the Kurds, many of whom have been beaten or tear-gassed at anti-Erdogan rallies in the past weeks. But in the absence of a robust opposition -- and with the military's influence in politics significantly reduced from its heyday -- Erdogan's power is mostly unrivaled.

The margin of the AKP's victory, which is the only unknown about Sunday's vote, will play a critical role in determining Erdogan's leadership style and the country's post-election atmosphere. According to Konda, a private survey company, the party seems to have secured 46.5 percent of the votes, which translates to 328 to 332 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The Republican People's Party, the main opposition party known as the CHP, is poised to get 26 percent of the votes and thus secure 145 to 155 seats; the MHP, a far-right nationalist party struggling to cross the 10 percent threshold required to enter the parliament, is polling at 10.8 percent.

Konda's manager, Bekir Agirdir, explains that if the AKP gets 367 seats in the parliament -- admittedly unlikely, according to the latest polling -- it will reach the two-thirds "supermajority" it needs to rewrite the constitution, without the cooperation of other parties or having to call for a referendum. That would raise suspicions about how inclusive the new charter would be.

If the AKP wins 330 seats, however, it would not be able to act on its own. In such a scenario, the AKP would have to call for a referendum on the proposed constitutional changes. Anything below 330 would force the party to reach consensus with the opposition to be able to pass any major legislation.

The process of rewriting the Turkish Constitution is closely tied to the Kurdish question, which has long tainted the country's democratic record. Last year, Erdogan initiated the "Kurdish Opening," a much-debated move to start dialogue about Kurdish demands for cultural rights. The prime minister's courageous steps were met with applause, yet an unforeseeable event complicated his calculations. Encouraged by the changing dynamics, some militants associated with the PKK -- a separatist Kurdish group -- returned to Turkey. Hundreds of Kurds gathered in southeastern cities, singing Kurdish songs and waving the outlawed organization's yellow-green-red flags, to welcome the militants. The event prompted an outcry among Erdogan's opponents, who immediately accused the prime minister of embracing terrorists. Realizing that the political cost of breaking the decades-long deadlock on the Kurdish issue would be too high, Erdogan changed course, abandoning his promises to initiate dialogue.

Erdogan's break with the Kurds has decisively changed this election campaign. Mesut Yegen, a sociology professor at Istanbul Sehir University who focuses on the Kurdish issue, suggests that to make up for the lost Kurdish votes in the southeast, the prime minister has been targeting MHP votes by adopting a more nationalistic tone. Journalist Cengiz Candar counts on the possibility of Erdogan returning to his signature "pragmatism" after the vote and perhaps easing his rhetoric on the Kurds. Winning them back, however, will be much harder.

Fed up with the stalemate, Kurdish politicians have changed their tune, too: Their calls for autonomy are only increasing in volume. According to Yegen, Erdogan has irreparably lost touch with the Kurds. "AKP candidates running in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern towns are mostly accomplished bureaucrats or businesspeople," he says. "This implies that Erdogan thinks the Kurdish issue is ultimately an economic problem, whereas for Kurds it's about who they are."

There are other signs of a profound political transformation in the country. Under its new leader, Kilicdaroglu, the CHP is rebranding itself. The party has long harbored sympathies for the adamantly secular army, which for years fought against the separatist PKK militants in Turkey's rugged southeast. Now, the CHP is presenting itself as a liberal party that is eager to talk to others, including the Kurds. Sezgin Tanrikulu, the party's Kurdish vice president, says the party is "reaching out to those on the periphery." Tanrikulu's presence on the CHP ticket is widely interpreted as a strong sign of change within the opposition.

Disappointed by Erdogan's unkept promises, Kurdish deputies seem likely to push harder for recognition of the Kurdish minority after the elections. Inspired by the Arab Spring, some Kurds are discussing resorting to acts of civil disobedience. This may include "not singing the Turkish anthem at schools" or "refusing to serve in the Turkish army," Yegen says.

What's clear is that Sunday's election will be the beginning, not the end, of determining Erdogan's ultimate legacy in Turkey. Demonstrating his ability to unite a deeply divided society under the umbrella of a new, inclusive constitution would secure a place in the history books for the prime minister. The question is whether he has the ability, and the will, to pull it off.

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