If you think taking the SAT and ACT exams amid the coronavirus pandemic is stressful, take a look at how it made China’s ordinarily tough college entrance exams even more stressful — and inequitable.

The entrance exams in China are high-stakes to a T — students can take them only once and they determine who gets in and where. In the past, students have been known to study so hard for the exam that they take intravenous amino acids to stay awake and alert.

This year, during the pandemic, things got much worse for Chinese students, as explained in this story by Rayna Song, a journalism student at Northwestern University. She spent two months researching the story, interviewing more than 30 people. It’s a fascinating look at a college admissions process even more frenzied than the one in this country.

By Rayna Song

Eighteen-year-old Jing Lin never dreamed that a virus would completely disrupt her meticulously designed plans to ace the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam. She saw an excellent score on the test as a ticket to a top university — and a better life.

When, like 10 million other high school seniors in China, she needed to switch to online classes from early February to early April because of the national lockdown amid covid-19, she found herself at a disadvantage. Whereas her wealthier peers could hire private tutors or pay for Web preparation programs, she could only study in her noisy apartment with poor Internet connection.

“During online classes, I usually studied on the balcony, because there are five people in my home, and the balcony is much quieter,” Lin said. “Late at night, I studied on the balcony as well, and the LED desk lamp provided enough lighting. On average, I spent six hours studying during daytime, and three hours after nightfall.”

After April, most Chinese high schools resumed in-person classes for the graduating class in light of the declining number of positive cases in this country with more than 1.4 billion people. Lin recently graduated from a public school in Fujian, a southern province separated from Taiwan by a 110-mile strait. In her senior year, Lin lived with her parents and her paternal grandparents in a 16th-floor apartment. In the end, she got into Hainan Tropical Ocean University, located on Hainan Island, 14 miles off mainland China. She said she would have done better in the exam if 2020 had been normal.

The year 2020 stands out in many ways. Almost every high school senior in China took two months of online classes before taking the gaokao, and the Chinese Ministry of Education extended the exam date by a month, moving the first day from June 7 to July 7.

Despite these measures, gaokao 2020 widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as the wealthier students could afford quiet rooms in their own homes and expensive private lessons, while the less privileged students had few choices other than taking the online classes offered by their high schools.

High school seniors traditionally take this exam after one year of preparation, and unlike the SAT or ACT exams, they only get one chance to take the exam each year. If they are unsatisfied with the score obtained, then they must spend one more year in high school and retake the exam the following year. Gaokao lasts three to four days, with different subjects tested on each day.

Besides Chinese, math and English, the student has some flexibility in terms of the other three subjects, which include chemistry, physics, biology, politics, history and geography. Each subject test ranges between 90 and 150 minutes, the Chinese test being the longest. In addition, since breaks occur only between each subject test, the student needs to concentrate for up to two and a half hours, and schools train students to embrace this intensity.

Typically, the admission officers judge the student entirely by the score obtained. For each province, universities have different score requirements. For example, the Beijing score requirement of Tsinghua University, one of the best universities in China, is 687 this year. The highest composite score is 750, and any Beijing student who gets more than 687 is guaranteed a place at Tsinghua. However, if a student gets 686, even one point below the score requirement, the possibility of getting into Tsinghua is extremely slim.

In general, better universities have higher score requirements. As a result, most Chinese people regard gaokao as a fair exam, which allows less privileged students to enter the best universities. However, moving classes online challenged this perception.

“Sometimes in class, the screen froze, and I would have to refresh the online platform or log out,” Lin said. “This could be disruptive, as I would lose my train of thought.”

Lin also explained how, during the first two weeks of online instruction before a system update, the screen froze as many as three to four times each class, with each interruption lasting up to 10 minutes, and each class ranging from 40 to 60 minutes. Lin said she did not attend these online classes and instead turned to self-study materials, such as study guides and practice exams. Even though her high school records all the classes, Lin did not watch the recordings because she had an extremely packed schedule, and sometimes the teachers themselves had Internet connection issues.

“My grades dropped during lockdown, and I got distracted more easily when I was studying from home,” Lin said. “If my family were wealthier, if I could get a good tutor, I would probably get better grades.”

Millions of other less privileged students went through similar challenges. Christine Percheski, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, whose research has focused on family demographics and social inequalities, said she believes covid-19 and online classes contributed to widening the gap between the wealthier students and the less privileged students.

“Less wealthy households tend to be more crowded, (with) less space and more people, so less of a quiet space to study,” Percheski said. “Some share of less wealthy students have parents who are not as highly educated as more wealthy students, so parents might have been less able to help them with schoolwork during the shutdown.”

Students with family incomes high enough to pay for lessons outside of their high schools sometimes saw substantial improvement in grades. Huiying Yan, a high school senior from Jiangxi, China, decided not to take online classes offered by her high school; instead, she chose other online classes.

Because these classes were offered to thousands of students online, they were much less expensive than private lessons. Yan only paid around $700 for her outside online classes, but even then, not every family could afford this amount. The monthly median per capita income in China was about $1,000 in the first quarter of 2020. During the two months of online classes, Yan took the classes she paid for, while most of her peers took the classes offered by her high school.

“I go to high school in a small town, and the teachers there are not very qualified,” Yan said. “When I came back to school after quarantine, I saw a huge improvement in my ranking. We had practice exams pretty frequently, and then the school ranked our scores after each exam. My overall score was ranked in the 80s out of the 500 students in my year before quarantine, but when I returned to school two months later, I was ranked in the 30s.”

Higher up on the family income ladder, some students were wealthy enough to afford private lessons without the need to worry about financial burdens. Di Wu from Zhejiang, China, spent more than $20,000 on her one-on-one classes during senior year alone.

“I didn’t really take any classes at my high school the entire senior year because I did not like the stressful environment,” Wu said. “During quarantine, my private lessons were moved online, and even though occasionally I had Internet connection problems, the problems were quickly resolved since the teacher and I could immediately switch to other platforms.”

When it comes to the one-month extension, Wu said she was grateful for this opportunity to practice more and improve her scores. However, she added that some of her peers might not be as fortunate, and this extension might become a burden.

“Some students pushed themselves really hard preparing for the exam,” Wu said. “This one month of extension might exhaust them and drain up the last of their energy.”

However, it is also possible that online classes offered by the high schools gave the less privileged students access to resources from which they would not normally benefit. Most high schools in China are public, so the Chinese government was able to provide the same online classes to all students.

In some provinces, the online classes were divided into two sections, with the first few weeks of classes taught by the most well-known teachers in the province and the later weeks taught by the original teachers from the high schools. All the students in the province, regardless of the high school, took the same first-section classes.

Xueqi Tang, a senior from Jiangxi, China, who does not go to a top high school, said these online classes might help reduce the gap between the less fortunate students and the students who go to the best schools.

“This system enabled me to learn problem-solving techniques that I would not learn at my high school,” Tang said. “The first section is the same all across Jiangxi province, and the teachers are more qualified than ours.” Percheski said some less wealthy students would get new opportunities through online courses, but, she added, “on average, the gap will be bigger.”

“I think the gap will have grown the most in countries where there’s a market for private education, or where parents supplement the education,” Percheski said.

Siyu Li, an educational researcher from China, said the gap widened in 2020 because of the coronavirus and online classes. Li is pursuing her sociology doctorate in France, and her research focuses on the system of gaokao, and specifically, the evaluation of students through exam scores and nothing else.

In general, students from better high schools are often wealthier because their parents invest in their education from a very early age, such as through extra academic classes, and this capital gives them advantages over their less privileged peers when they compete for the best institutions, Li added.

“You can compare this to a bank account,” Li said. “Wealthier parents start depositing in the amount from an early age, such as primary school, while the less wealthy parents start depositing much later, maybe in middle school. By the end of high school, the deposit is transformed into the gaokao score.”

Li said the first section of online classes Tang mentioned might reduce the gap because the most well-known teachers are also the most familiar with gaokao and its rules, and thus, these teachers are better prepared to help the students.

When it comes to the future, Li said she is not sure whether provincewide online classes will help the less privileged students if China were to popularize this system.

“If the online classes are just videos, many students might choose not to watch them. Also, the best teachers might be more accustomed to teaching the better students, and their recordings might fit poorly with the less privileged students,” Li said.

Considering the possibility of another pandemic hitting the world in the future, Yan said she hoped the government would ensure better Internet connection nationwide and ameliorate the online educational system, utilizing local television stations. She added the government should pay more attention to supporting the students emotionally.

“Students got depressed easily because of health concerns and the lockdown, and misinformation circulating on the Internet, such as a community member testing positive, only added to the anxiety and distress,” Yan said. “It would nice if the school could put aside time for students to talk about their lives in quarantine, encouraging peer communication.”