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China GaoKao Reflects Importance And Extremes Of Nation's College Entrance Exam

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In this Thursday June 7, 2012 photo, parents wait outside a closed gate of a school where their children are taking the annual national college entrance exams in Fuyang, in central China's Anhui province. About 9.15 million students throughout China take the annual college entrance exams on Thursday and Friday, according to the Ministry of Education. (AP Photo)
In this Thursday June 7, 2012 photo, parents wait outside a closed gate of a school where their children are taking the annual national college entrance exams in Fuyang, in central China's Anhui province. About 9.15 million students throughout China take the annual college entrance exams on Thursday and Friday, according to the Ministry of Education. (AP Photo)

Just as students around the country buckle down for final exams at school, their counterparts in China are sitting for a test of their own. But unlike students on this side of the Pacific, Chinese students have been preparing for this moment their entire high school careers, and in some cases, half their lives.

At the beginning of every summer, the world's most populous nation bends over backward to accomodate the gaokao, China's national college entrance exam. Flight routes are rearranged to mitigate overhead noise, and roads to the testing facilities are cordoned off by law enforcement, the New York Times reports. Honking is forbidden.

During the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, the Olympic torch relay was re-routed so as not to disturb the test-takers. This year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization rescheduled its Beijing summit to ease traffic as 73,000 students hauled off to testing sites, the China Daily reports. Paramedics pepper exam facilities during the multiple-day test.

"Some students may faint in the classroom," a Beijing Emergency Medical Center doctor, Xin, told the China Daily. "We have prepared some medical services accordingly."

But not all tragedies are averted. On the first day of last year's gaokao, Lü Pin, an 18-year-old student in Hunan Province, committed suicide by jumping off the sixth floor of his dorm. Internet sources documented that Lü arrived 15 minutes late for the test and speculated that he took his life after being refused entry. Local police said that Lü jumped to his death to avoid the exam, the Global Times reported.

Police also oversee the testing site by providing drinking water, fans and medicine to parents waiting outside.

"This year is my fourth time coming here, but I still feel nervous as if I am sitting in the exam room, as the students remind me of the time I took gaokao," police officer Song Zhigang told China Daily.

The gaokao is a departure from America's SAT and ACT exams. Whereas American universities consider test scores as merely a portion of admissions decisions -- among extracurriculars, leadership, service and more -- the gaokao is still by far the most significant factor in Chinese college admission, according to the New York Times., even though it has been criticized for rewarding rote memorization over genuine learning.

Frustrations with the gaokao's end-all-be-all status in Chinese college admission reignited recently when pictures emerged depicting high school students studying for the gaokao while connected to IV drips and hooked up to oxygen tanks, reportedly to promote mental energy.

This year's figures from the Chinese Ministry of Education show that 9.15 million students are competing for only 6.85 million college slots.

"I have come to the [testing] spot since grade one in junior school to feel the tense atmosphere, and thus to make myself better prepared when it is my turn," second-year high schooler Meng Fanzhao told China Daily.

"The competition for a prestigious university seemed to start when my son went to school when he was 6 years old. Children compete for higher scores to enter a better middle school, then a better high school," Zhao Xichen, a father whose son is taking the gaokao this week, told China Daily. "And all this preparation is for today's fight."

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Filed by Gregory Kristof