I've recently been trying to find out more about how colleges and universities work in other countries, and I moonlight as an SAT tutor, so I was fascinated by (although slightly frustrated with) Manuela Zoninsein's profile in Slate of the gaokao, China's national college entrance exam:
Kao means test, and gao, which means high, indicates the test's perceived level of difficulty—and its ability to intimidate. It is China's SAT—if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one's entire professional trajectory.
"Covered everything learned since kindergarten"? Does that mean non-cumulatively -- for example, questions about simple multiplication, telling time, or identifying colors? I wish there were some sample test questions -- I would love to see the range, and the kinds of content that Chinese students are expected to learn.
The test is supposed to be uniform nationally, but in reality, the gaokao is modified by each province to accommodate the quality of local education. Among students, it is widely held that Tibet and Xinjiang have the easiest versions, Beijing and Shanghai the most difficult. Each university also sets provincial quotas to guarantee minimum enrollment by minorities and students from poorer provinces and to ensure a lopsided number of local entrants (this is the Chinese strategy for maintaining amicable town-gown relations).
It's the same all over. Interesting solution, though. I suppose our state universities something similar through price-subsidies for in-state students, and private universities (at least the more prestigious ones) for regional/international balance.
Scores determine one's major as much as alma mater. Tsinghua, "the MIT of China," has an internationally renowned engineering program, so gaokao minimums are out of this world. To enter Tsinghua's software engineering department in 2007, students needed a score of at least 680, out of top scores in the low 700s, depending on the province. (Consider that in Shandong Province, the highest 2007 score was 675.) The software engineering program at Xibei Sciences University, in Xi'an Province, demanded just 442.
So does it determine your major, or doesn't it? Are software engineers from Xibei unemployable?
Another point the article doesn't address is whether political influence or cronyism affects college entrance -- it gives the impression that the system is purely meritocratic, and that (in any rate) there are few doubts as to its legitimacy. Give me more, Slate!