17 September 2014 at 9:00 am

Bold gaokao reforms announced

China has announced the boldest reform to its national higher education entrance examinations since the system was revived in 1977.

The changes will see the removal of streaming – a policy which has been in place since 1957 – allowing students greater flexibility in subject choices to count toward their final score. Higher education admission processes are also slated to change.

Common subjects remain

Under the current gaokao system, students must study Chinese language, maths and a foreign language (usually, but not exclusively, English). Students will continue to study these common subjects.

While the three common subjects will be tested at a ‘unified date’, many provinces will allow students to take two separate exams for English and submit their best result.

Streaming abolished

The reforms will remove the policy of streaming students into the arts stream or the science stream in their second year of senior high school. Instead, students will study a mix of arts and science subjects.

More subjects introduced

As well as the three common subjects, the reforms will see students study 11 others. The 11 subject areas will likely vary between provinces.

While students must study all 11 subjects, only three results from six identified subjects – history, geography, politics, chemistry, biology and physics – will count toward their overall gaokao score. The three results may be a student’s best results and/or be from subject areas which align well with their future study plans.

The 11 subjects will be assessed based on a ranking system, with students awarded a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ grade. How the rankings will be converted into scores for the overall gaokao score is an area that will be clarified through implementation plans.

These changes will likely see students prioritise particular subjects based on their future study plans.

Change in admission processes

The admission processes of China’s higher education institutions will also change. The reforms encourage institutions to adopt a multidimensional enrolment system; to look beyond a singular focus on gaokao results to include ‘academic performance’ and ‘overall qualities’ in their assessments.

With the removal of streaming, it is likely that Chinese higher education institutions will provide students with greater clarity as to the subject requirements they must meet to apply for specific fields of study – for example, a higher score in politics may be more important for students seeking to study law than biology.

Another change relates to the ‘extra points’ policy. This policy saw students with strengths in sports or artistic pursuits awarded bonus points for the gaokao and thus a better chance of entering top universities. This policy will be removed from 2015.


The China Ministry of Education has designated Shanghai municipality and Zhejiang province as pilot areas for the reforms. Implementation will begin later this year for first year students at senior high schools.

Both Shanghai and Zhejiang are expected to publish implementation plans in the coming months which will outline in greater detail how the reforms will be implemented.

The reforms will be rolled out nationwide from 2017 and are expected to be fully implemented by 2020.

Rationale for the change

The reforms follow the significant debate across China about the education system’s ‘fitness for purpose’ in an era where innovation is essential for the next phase of China’s economic development.

The reforms seek to address common criticisms of the gaokao. As Vice Minister of Education Du Yubo said, “to put it simply, we are trying to solve the problem of yi kao ding zhong shen (one exam determines one's entire life)”.

Greater international recognition likely

The reforms will likely stimulate an increase in the number of tertiary institutions around the world accepting gaokao for admission into degree programmes. A growing number of institutions already accept gaokao results, including seven of Australia’s Group of Eight universities.

Education New Zealand has been working with Universities New Zealand on the acceptance of gaokao results for direct entry. We are interested in hearing from all New Zealand providers which do currently or are considering direct entry on the basis of gaokao. Email us at china@enz.govt.nz.

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