Domestic Affairs

In defense of the gaokao

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-09-15 09:26
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Spoiler Alert: I like standardized tests.

In the US, tests like the SAT, the ACT, and Advanced Placement exams, are considered by nearly all the most competitive universities admissions' departments.

Unlike in China and other countries such as France, however, where a student's score on the college admissions' tests alone can determine whether that student will qualify to go to a school such as Tsinghua or the Sorbonne, the American college admissions' tests alone will not determine whether a student is accepted at the most competitive schools there.

Related readings:
In defense of the gaokao Treat top Gaokao scorers with a cool head
In defense of the gaokao Should Gaokao, the make-or-break test for university admissions, be reformed?
In defense of the gaokao Stunning ancient-style essay emerges from gaokao
In defense of the gaokao All about China's big exam - gaokao

The most selective US universities consider other factors in making admissions' decisions. Some of those factors are related to merit, such as a student's high school grades. Other nonacademic factors, such as athletic talent, a student's race, and whether an applicant's parent attended the school, are also considered.

US universities also balance classes, so that if a lot of tuba playing scholars applied from one geographic area one year, for example, the chance of any one of them being accepted would decline, particularly if the school already had a top-notch tuba player in the school's band.

As a teacher who for many years taught high school seniors, I am familiar with the angst that students feel taking the various standardized tests. Students in the US frequently complain that the tests are weighted too heavily, that the scores don't fairly reflect how well they know the material, and/or that the students themselves are poor test-takers.

Even taken together, the tests are less determinative of a student's future in the US than is the gaokao in China, so it is instructive to ask whether a test like the gaokao counts too much. Would China be benefited, in other words, by adopting more subjective admissions' criteria?

A recent study in the US suggests the answer is "no."

A psychology professor in the US had her upper-level college classes examine a number of hypothetical applications to their university. The professor asked groups of students to rank-order applicants based upon various fictitious profiles (i.e. high school grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, etc.) in the applications.

The students were charged with acting like admissions' officers to determine what factors they would weigh most heavily in making admissions' decisions. While before the activity many student reviewers felt that standardized college admissions' tests were weighted too heavily or should be discontinued altogether, after the activity, there was a "significant decrease in student perceptions of how unfair standardized tests are."

Students realized that standardized tests are the one objective measurement that admissions' committees can use to compare applicants.. The tests offer a transparency which is sometimes clouded by other factors in American college admissions.

It may well be that we empathize with the Chinese high school senior who recently echoed the thoughts of many of her peers when she said that that the gaokao would determine her destiny. But that empathy should not suggest that students would be better served by making the college admission's process more subject to manipulation by watering down the importance of the gaokao.

Patrick Mattimore is an adjunct professor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing and formerly served on the faculty/student admission's committee at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. He can be reached via e-mail: