New Gaokao in Zhejiang China: Carrying on with Challenges

Here in the U.S., it can often be difficult be difficult to find information on educational changes in China. Helping offer insight and resources, we are welcoming two new corresponding editors for China to International Ed New. This week, we feature a post from Aidi Bian on changes in the National College Entrance exam in China. Aidi is a master’s student studying Learning Analytics at Teachers College, Columbia University.  In the future, we will occasionally feature posts from Aidi and others on educational issues in China.


China’s education system has had a well-known focus on tests and exams.  However, with Shanghai’s high performance in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, Chinese educators and policymakers have expressed concerns that the emphasis on standardized tests limits the development of the skills Chinese citizens will need to compete in a globalized world. As a result, over the past 5 years, policymakers in China have been making a series of changes in the National College Entrance Examination (referred as “gaokao” in Chinese), which guides elementary and secondary education.

The State Council published the official document for guiding the Gaokao reform in 2014 and required provinces to adapt the reform based on local context. According to the schedule, the first steps were to be taken by Zhejiang and Shanghai in 2014, with Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong and Hainan following in 2017. So far, the reform has become the most significant change in the Exam since 1977. Yet, these changes are not without challenges and problems. Among 18 originally scheduled provinces, only 8 had started the new policy by 2018.

Zhejiang was one of the first provinces carried out the reform. Major changes in Zhejiang gaokao include:

  • Student choice: Instead having to choose between two sets of exams – either arts or science – students now can choose 3 elective subjects (a choice among physics, chemistry, biology, geography, politics, history, and general technology).
  • Timing: Students now have more opportunities to take the exams. Previously, students took all the subject tests within two days in June. Now only the compulsory subject tests take place in June. Students can take the elective subject tests starting in the second year of high school (in October and March). They can also take each elective subject test and English twice and use the highest grade for their college. These changes were intended to reduce the pressure so that students will not be too nervous about the last “two days” setting the course for their lives.
  • Scoring: The scoring method has changed so that now absolute scores are translated into ranking scores. For example, if a student ranks the top 1% among all students taking a particular subject test, she will get a 100 for a grade no matter the actual score; if a student ranks in the top 2% among all students taking the same subject test, she will get a 97 for grade.

Gaokao 2

Although these changes were designed to give students more flexibility in selecting subjects that match their interests and to reduce pressure, schools have found the new changes have led to some unanticipated developments:

  • Before the reform, all students took the same courses during all three years of high school. Groups of students took the same courses together. Now, since students are choosing elective subjects, it is much harder for school leaders to anticipate how many students will take each subject, creating challenges for both scheduling and staffing. As a result, some schools found they have too many physics teachers while not enough geography teachers and some schools were not able to offer every elective subject.
  • Some students and parents are choosing subjects that top students are less likely to take. For example, in Zhejiang, fewer and fewer students chose to take physics in high school due to the difficulty of getting high rank. and university teachers complained that engineering students from Zhejiang did worse in basic college physics than their peers from other provinces.
  • Although top students may benefit from the chance to take some tests early, the prolonged gaokao schedule exerts more pressure on many others. Students have to be prepared for the elective subjects test earlier, and they face the stress of taking high-stakes tests throughout high school

In Zhejiang, the response to these concerns has already begun.  After the first 3-years of implementation,the Zhejiang government issued new guidelines revising key aspects of the original gaokao reform. For example, to encourage more students to take physics, the Zhejiang established a new policy giving students taking physics a better chance to get a high ranking score. Other provinces are also working on better preparing and implementing the reform based on experiences and problems learned from the pioneer cases, including organizing visits and trips to schools that are successfully responding to the reform.


Main Sources:


坚定方向 不断深化 浙江深化高考改革试点意见出台








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