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When Studying Doesn't Guarantee Admissions to Elite High Schools in China

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Here in America, high school is almost always an innate part of our journey through life.

From iCarly to 13 Reasons Why to even Spiderman, we are shown throughout our childhood that high school is this place, scary or fun, that we will all go through at a certain time.

But while we can reflect on such memories later on in life, 60% of the young population in rural China will not be able to because they were forced to drop out before high school.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors that constitute the inequalities present in high school enrollment in China.


Why is it that high school enrollment is so important?

First, we must establish that policymakers have recognized a direct correlation between high school enrollment and human capital. In other words, developing countries have greatly increased their high school enrollment percentages in the previous decades as an attempt to further empower their country. Studies recognize that across nations such as Romania, Hungary, and Mexico, the better the high school, the better the students.

As such high schools provide better and more resources for students, they also establish a more positive learning environment with healthy competition and qualified teachers to promote passionate study.

However, with such benefits arise the problem of inequality of access. Without adequate insurance that everyone may have the opportunity to attend such “elite” high schools, social and economic gaps may widen, favoring only the rich. Ultimately, the cyclical loop of the poor failing to attend such high schools and subsequently falling behind on more opportunities repeats with the passing of every generation.

Just like the college entrance exam, otherwise known as the Gao Kao (高考), students across China have to take a High School Entrance Exam (HSEE) that determines their admission into various high schools ranked by prestige. Above the obvious financial limitations, there are several other factors against rural students that deter them from achieving the scores necessary to advance them into a desirable high school.

The Dual-Channel Admissions System

Before proceeding, I would like to first clarify what the dual-channel admissions systems is and and how it is used in conjunction with every student's score on the HSEE.

The most apparent admissions process, or the “first channel” looks solely at a student’s score as a way of deciding his or her capabilities for top-ranking high schools. However, for those who are able to afford it, there is also the option for families to pay extra admission fees in order to gain admission and to make-up for the below-qualifying score achieved by the student in the HSEE.

Score Gaps

Studies and published research have depicted that annually, there is a difference in final performance among students taking the HSEE, dependent largely on their geographical location and the conditions they grew up in.

Several factors constitute the notable score gap between students from rural China and those testing from the cities. The mote obvious is the disparity in resources. Without adequate funding, national investment, and enjoyable conditions, next to no teachers are willing to find a job teaching in rural China. Simultaneously, without effective government attention to teacher training and policy impact for such education, as will be discussed in later blogs, the potential for improvement is slim.

However, the second, less apparent explanation, is what many researchers call a “systematic bias in certain HSEE subjects.” More specifically, statistical analysis shows that there is an identifiable difference in average scores between rural and urban students on English and political questions.

Politics and English

Let’s take a closer look at what exactly makes these two exams “biased.”

On the politics sections of the HSEE, a large percentage of the exam topics are expected to be memorized for the actual exam. This additional requirement of memorization of current events beyond just analysis and application of historical politics leaves rural students who do not have immediate access to news media and the internet to be at a significant disadvantage.

For examples, one of the questions on the HSEE may look as such:

What was the major conference that was held in Zhengzhou on June 28 of 2019?

A. The national summit with Japanese officials from Kyoto.

B. A county discussion regarding environmental protection changes

C. A discussion with the China International Auto Aftermarket Fair

D. A discussion with the International Conference on Computer Science and Educational Information

Similarly, questions on the HSEE exam regarding the English subject are oftentimes culturally biased against rural students. From K-pop references to American city-life, many of the questions asked in English base themselves off the assumption that students have adequate knowledge regarding the trends and customs of select developed countries.

In the same sense as the political questions, rural students, though theoretically capable in preparing for this, have to consistently stay up to date with the world around them through videos and internet exploration, something that most do not have a reliable connection with. On the other hand, whether it may be in terms of changing clothing styles or dining habits, the urban and more developed areas of China are much more exposed to the stimulus diffusion of pop culture.

Combined, these two factors lead to the inevitable conclusion that even the equally capable students from rural China are faced with geographical limitations that ultimately limit their performance on the HSEE. The consequence of such unavoidable discrepancies is that rural students are fundamentally de-incentivized from even working towards high education in China.


Undoubtedly, education is not equal for students across rural and urban landscapes.

Yet in addition to the low rates of investment towards bettering the learning environment for children in rural China, their inability to access the same media outlets as students in urban China sets even more capable students at a disadvantage in the High School Entrance Exam.

To read more about this topic and the mathematical models used to modify such occurrences, feel free to check out this published research paper that confirms the aforementioned statements:

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