World News

For Survivors of a 9-Hour Chinese Exam, a Door Opens to America

Posted June 13, 2018 6:09 p.m. EDT

HONG KONG — Every June, millions of high school seniors in China sit down for a grueling university entrance exam, knowing they may not get into a top school or any school at all. If their results are disappointing, finding another route to university can take a year or more.

Now they may have a faster option.

The University of New Hampshire says it will start accepting scores from the Chinese exam, making it the first flagship state school in the United States to evaluate Chinese applicants using the results from that test, known as the gaokao.

There are 377,000 Chinese students in the United States, representing more than one-third of all international students, according to the federal government. Since they often pay full tuition, they are an important source of revenue for American universities, which have been intensifying their efforts to recruit Chinese students.

Erika Mantz, spokeswoman for the University of New Hampshire, said the gaokao program was meant to attract “outstanding Chinese high school graduates” after they get their test results in late June, months after the deadline has passed under the regular admissions process. Most incoming freshmen would have been admitted by the time Chinese students take the gaokao test.

The university — which had 781 international students last fall, almost half of them from China — has introduced a recruiting website in Chinese and English. Before the program for gaokao students was created, applicants who took the test would have to wait for a new application cycle to start in the fall. The new program allows them to start one semester earlier.

The gaokao, which generally lasts about nine hours over two days, determines the fates of almost 10 million students, less than 1 percent of whom gain admission to China’s top universities. Students spend years preparing for it.

While the Chinese education system has been praised for its rigor — a Stanford University study found that freshmen at Chinese universities outpaced their American and Russian peers by two or three years in critical thinking skills — critics say the gaokao incentivizes memorization over creativity. There have also been cheating scandals in recent years.

About 3 percent of Chinese students bypass the gaokao by paying to attend private “international track” programs that prepare them for standardized testing abroad. But their classmates planning to take the gaokao have little time for anything other than intense cramming in the years leading up to this rite of passage.

That single-minded focus isolates students from educational opportunities outside China, said Andrew Chen, the chief learning officer of the WholeRen Group, an education consulting firm based in Pittsburgh. It is rare for students to apply to programs abroad while also preparing for the Chinese exam, which takes place months after the deadline for most American universities.

Students unhappy with their gaokao results can wait a year to retake the test, as almost 1.5 million did last year, or take a gap year to prepare for the next cycle of American admissions. The University of New Hampshire program would take a bit of agony out of the wait, with an Oct. 1 deadline to apply for admission in January 2019.

“From the student’s perspective, it opens a door,” Chen said in a phone interview.

Like other out-of-state students, students admitted to the University of New Hampshire through the gaokao program would have to pay more than $45,000 a year in tuition and housing costs.

The University of New Hampshire joins dozens of European, Australian and Canadian universities, as well as a handful of private American institutions, that have been screening candidates using cutoff gaokao scores. The university reviews how students perform on the gaokao, and on an assessment of their English-language skills, before determining whether they can move forward with the application process.

Mantz, the spokeswoman, said that although admissions criteria were being finalized, students admitted to the University of New Hampshire would most likely have to take the SAT or ACT, a similar test, after their scores on the gaokao were vetted.

But admitted students would still set foot on campus earlier than they would have otherwise.

“This streamlined process quickly gives feedback to students who need additional English prep, so they can start on that path right away,” Mantz wrote in an email.

A similar program at the University of San Francisco allows Chinese students to bypass U.S. standardized testing altogether. A Jesuit institution with about 6,800 undergraduate students, the university has an early admissions program that allows June test takers to enroll as early as the fall semester, based solely on their gaokao score, grades and a one-on-one interview in English. Last spring, more than half the school’s 1,600 international students were from China.

On the program website, Paul J. Fitzgerald, the school’s president, said that although he was aware of criticism of the gaokao, it had the “advantage” of evaluating “whether students are able to master a given body of knowledge, as well as their ability to work hard and consistently."

Fitzgerald noted that the SAT, which serves as a basis for admission at most four-year colleges and universities in the United States, is also an imperfect predictor of college success.