High school students prepare for make-or-break test
Academic burdens reduced, but challenges lie ahead in the gaokao
The first thing 17-year-old Zhang Junyang does after getting up at around 6 am is to drink a considerable amount of black coffee to get through a long day of academic studies.
The student at Lushan Binjiang Experimental School in Changsha, Hunan province, started drinking coffee in her final year at high school to prepare for the "biggest test" of her life, the gaokao, or national college entrance exam.
The gaokao is a make-or-break exam for high school students, because their scores determine which higher education institution will accept them－either a university or a vocational college.
A record 10.78 million young people signed up for the gaokao last year. Although the overall enrollment rate for higher education in China has reached more than 90 percent in most provincial regions, the enrollment rate at first-tier universities is less than 20 percent, according to media reports.
In addition to the daytime classes that Zhang attends, the school organizes evening self-study courses, giving students time to review their work. The school day ends at 10:20 pm and Zhang usually goes to bed at around midnight.
Each week, Zhang only takes a half-day break on Sunday mornings. On Saturday evenings, when she does not have to attend the self-study course at the school, she takes an English-language course from a private tutor.
The intense academic pressure faced by the nation's high school students prompted the Ministry of Education to take measures to reduce their academic burden.
Earlier this year, the ministry said it would guide local governments in implementing the double reduction policy－reducing the burden on students from homework and extracurricular tutoring. It would also regulate private academic tutoring companies that take high school students. The ministry said these companies should comply with the same requirements as those for tutoring companies for primary and middle school students.
The double reduction policy was introduced by the general offices of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council in July. The policy forbids academic tutoring courses during weekends, public holidays, and the summer and winter vacations.
An official at the ministry said in late February that local governments are following the policy closely and are regulating tutoring companies that cater to high school students.
The Minors Protection Law stipulates that children should enjoy time for rest, leisure and physical exercise, the official said.
High schools should strive to meet the academic study demands of parents and students so that the latter do not need to attend tutoring courses, the official added.
A separate guideline issued by the ministry in January stated that high schools should offer students relief from excessive academic burdens by limiting the amount of homework, reducing the number of tests and not releasing students' exam rankings.
The guideline bans schools from organizing tutoring classes during public holidays and the summer and winter vacations. It also requires schools to arrange their daily schedules to ensure students have sufficient sleep.
Schools should not evaluate teachers based on their students' performance in the gaokao and their enrollment at good universities, the guideline states.
It also stresses the need for students to have at least one hour of physical exercise every day and to learn sports and art skills at high school.
Zhang only has two physical exercise lessons each week and no art course. She sleeps for about six hours every night.
"I am always sleepy during self-study sessions at night, but I am willing to abide by this tight schedule as long as studying hard brings a good result in the gaokao," she said.
Zhang added that since the ministry announced the new requirements, the only difference she has noticed at her school is that teachers no longer allow students to be absent at night for private tutoring courses.
"As far as the academic burden is concerned, no senior high school students dare take breaks from studying or relax their efforts," Zhang added.
Lan Huiyun, head teacher at Shuocheng District No 1 Middle School in Shuozhou, Shanxi province, said that although he welcomes the double reduction policy being implemented at high schools, his school has not taken any measures to ease students' excessive academic burden.
He said that not only are students under heavy pressure to perform well in the gaokao, but high school teachers are also urged to achieve a high enrollment rate for their students at leading universities, which determines the teachers' bonus, reputation and even promotion prospects.
Lan, who teaches a senior class, said his students only have a one-day break every two weeks, and some of them are told by their parents to take private tutoring courses during this time.
To help students devote all their attention to academic studies, the school has also canceled physical exercise and art lessons.
"I feel that students are pushed by their parents, teachers and society to study. Most students show no joy during class and just study day and night in the hope that this will help them achieve high scores in the gaokao," Lan said.
However, reforms to gaokao test papers in recent years mean students are less likely to achieve high scores only by rote learning.
Lan said that rather than memorizing textbooks and mock exam questions, students need to have a broader knowledge of life and current affairs to perform well in the gaokao.
Zhao Yongqiang, a student in Lan's class, said he studies for about 14 hours every day, after which he is too tired to continue with his academic work.
The 18-year-old said that although his grades are among the best in his class, his chances of getting into a top university are not high.
He said only 50 out of more than 800 liberal arts students at his school were admitted to first-tier universities last year, adding that his scores barely reach the threshold required for admittance to such institutions.
"I think I study too much every day, but I can keep this up until the gaokao in June," Zhao said. "Although I prefer a more relaxed schedule, I think I will regret it some day if I don't put all my efforts into my studies now."
Li Mo, Zhao's classmate, said she sometimes stays up studying until 2 am and gets up at 5:30 am.
"Some of my schoolmates with much better grades than myself work harder than me, so I don't have any excuse to slacken my efforts," the 18-year-old said.
Li said she wants to get a score in the gaokao that enables her to study archaeology and cultural relics repairs at a well-known university.
Zhao and Li said they agree with the idea of reducing high school students' academic burden, but they feel this development has come too late for them, as the gaokao is fast approaching.
According to the Ministry of Education, the proportion of offline tutoring institutions for primary and middle school students has fallen by 92 percent, while there has been an 87 percent drop in the number of such institutions operating online for these students.
A survey by the National Bureau of Statistics found that more than 70 percent of parents said the amount of homework assigned to their children had been markedly reduced, while 85 percent of parents said they were satisfied with extracurricular services offered by schools.
Experts said that while the double reduction policy has made significant headway in reducing the academic burden for primary and middle school students, it will be much harder to achieve this for high school students.
Chen Zhiwen, editor-in-chief of the online education portal EOL, said that unlike primary and middle school pupils, there is no need for high school students to attend private tutoring courses, as they are kept sufficiently busy with their studies.
He added that with the gaokao being the main route for students to enroll for higher education, reducing the academic burden at high schools is a challenge.
Chen added that studying hard for three years at high school has paid off for some students, as they have gone on to top universities and well-paid jobs.
However, parents and students need to realize that not all students have the ability to pursue academic research and obtain degrees. Rather than focusing all their attention on studying to achieve good grades in the gaokao, students should explore at an early stage the things they are passionate about, Chen added.
Lan, the head teacher from Shuozhou, said the importance of the gaokao is so deep-rooted for students and parents that the emphasis is placed on studying at well-known universities, in preference to vocational colleges.
Vocational education should be further reformed so that students who do not do that well in the gaokao still have a promising future, he said.
According to Lan, some students have little interest in academic studies. Those who do well with oral work could consider becoming livestreaming hosts, while students who excel at practical work could become hairstylists, cooks or mechanical workers.
Learning a trade at a vocational college is as important as academic research at well-known universities, and vocational education should not be stigmatized, he added.