Chinese high schools students in Henan province cramming for exams in 2009. Photo from NetEase.
National examinations in China are a month from now, and millions of students and parents across the nation are already working themselves into a fever.
Every year in early June, millions of Chinese high school seniors across the entire country sit down to National Higher Education Entrance Examinations, or simply shortened in Chinese as the gaokao, a multi-day series of standardized testing. Scoring well in the tests, notorious for their length and difficulty, is required to advance to undergraduate schools.
The tests this year will take place from June 7 to June 9. Of course, many have already been preparing for months in advance, but as the date for the examination nears, mental pressure and strenuous study regimens are likely to take their toll.
Meanwhile, this year, Chinese tabloid papers and micro-bloggers posted images of high school students in Hubei province who were taking intravenous amino acid injections during their study sessions, ostensibly to help them study longer and more effectively.
Recently uploaded images from last Sunday showing students taking intravenous injections during exam prep in Hubei. Image from Sina Weibo and Southern Metropolitan Daily.
Even less extreme students are now likely to dedicate their entire day, either locked away at home or in summer prep sessions in schools, to reviewing Math, Chinese, and English, along with other additional subjects in the sciences and arts.
Parents, eager to see that their one child enters a good college and is guaranteed a pathway to success for the rest of their life, also face a great deal of mental pressure and anxiety. Teachers and administrators are also eager to push students, since high testing scores gain schools renown.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, there were more than 28,000 high schools throughout the entire country in 2010. In 2011, around 9.2 million students took the gaokao; most of them were high school seniors, although there is no age restriction on who can take the exams.
In the past two years, the number of test takers has dropped. In 2010 more than 9.5 million took the exam; in 2009 an all-time high of more than 10 million took the test.
While students all over the world fear standardized exams, in China the sheer number of test takers and the format of testing is considered to be particularly competitive, and far more intimidating than, for example, the SATs, which determine college admission in the U.S.
Privileged and wealthy families, and increasingly high numbers of Chinese middle class, are also sending their children overseas, in part to avoid the stresses of the Chinese education system and to attain coveted foreign degrees. More than 350,000 chose to go abroad in 2011.
There is an ongoing debate in the country over testing reform, increasing college acceptance rates, and lowering testing standards in order to alleviate stresses caused by the system. In the past, students have been angered by different score standards for test takers applying from within the same regions, seen as a major disadvantage for students from out-of-province trying to enter high-ranking institutions in China's major cities, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai.