Reform of China's National College Entrance Exam - Mei Lan Frame

The Setting – NCEE in an urban high school in Beijing

This study examines the gaokao (高考), China’s National College Entrance Exam (NCEE), in the context of government reforms designed to change the disadvantages of a system where “one’s fate (life) is determined by one examination” (从根本上解决一考定终身的弊端). The idea of a culminating exam in education has defined the content, structure, and value of education for over 1500 years in Chinese education, and scholars of Chinese education repeatedly refer to (and lament) the power, influence, and immovability of the NCEE system. This study focuses on the rules, norms, and beliefs that uphold the NCEE and how these are challenged by recent reforms that promote “non-tested” requirements for college admission.  


The Research

Research is a case study of a Chinese urban high school in Beijing, referred to as Gao Zhong (GZ), conducted September 2017 to February 2018, during the implementation of reforms promoted by China’s Ministry of Education as the most extensive reforms to the NCEE since its re-instatement in 1977. The initial “tension” of implementation was used to gather data on the associated rules, norms, and beliefs of stakeholders (administration, teachers, parents, and students) at GZ high school towards the NCEE, as well as their opinion on new reforms. 


Left - Maintaining confidentiality with 10th grade teachers
Center - Countdown of days to NCEE
Right - Poster "Struggle until last breath"



The study uses Scott's (2008) “three pillars” (regulatory, normative, and cultural-cognitive) of institutions as a conceptual framework to understand the NCEE and explore why the NCEE remains an “immovable” institution of Chinese education. Through this analysis, the author explores the feasibility of change (and non-change) to the NCEE system, based on policy reform goals.


Preliminary Outcomes

The findings suggest that the NCEE is primarily viewed from a “technical” perspective, defined by functionality, performance, and outputs. The NCEE is revered as an institutionalized procedure that enables both “education” and educational effort to be codified, assessed, and translated into higher education opportunity (and future social and economic opportunity), through the singular score of the NCEE. Thus, the NCEE becomes the task of education rather than, as is often argued, the purpose of education in China.  


Outside of the task, what is valued and gained in education derives more from the process of the NCEE, rather than the test itself, harking back to an equally long tradition of emphasis on “character.” As the study argues, the legitimacy of a “single score” is normatively upheld through values of fairness and objectivity, while cognitively maintained as an antidote to corruption and guanxi (关系), or relationship. Although the reforms stress “non-test” requirements, these requirements will be translated into scores themselves, suggesting more superficial rather than substantive change to the NCEE system.


The Author

The researcher has worked for several years in education in China, as a lecturer in higher education, and as a teacher trainer for the District Education Commission in Beijing. Her interest in China’s NCEE and its role in Chinese education derives from her long-standing interest in examining a statement often encountered from colleagues when inquiring about the NCEE – that “This is China.”  This study is part of her doctoral dissertation research.