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Gaokao gloom infects IELTS

2012-06-25 17:57 Global Times     Web Editor: Xu Rui comment

Although it had been five years since I'd last studied, I had decided it was time to get a Master's degree. Because I don't hail from an English speaking country, I first had to take the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test.

It just so happened that my test coincided with the infamous gaokao (national college entrance examinations). Although the IELTS is not as harrowing as the gaokao, the British Council seems to have taken inspiration from the gaokao when organizing the IELTS tests in Beijing. It would seem that even foreigners can easily be drawn into the make-or-break aura surrounding these tests, which determine the futures of students and their families in China.

Entering the registration area was how I imagine it would feel to step into the solemn halls of the White House. The assistants lined up to take the student's names looked as cold as undertakers, they didn't even reply to a cheerful nihao (hello)!

Unlike the gaokao, traffic police weren't deployed to keep roads quiet, but a platoon of IELTS watchers identified by their vests warded off any attempts at dialogue. The air was thicker inside the waiting room than outside, even in the humidity of Beijing's summer.

Students couldn't enter with anything other than the clothes on their backs. Pencils and erasers were provided. The examiner told us that we weren't even allowed to take a bottle of water into the room, unless it had no label and was transparent. Ironically, all the instructions for this English exam were given in Chinese. When I tried to confirm details with the girl standing next to me, she whispered: "dui" (yes).

Every student was scanned with a metal detector. We had to confirm twice that we didn't have a cell phone or any other gadgets. We had to take off our glasses as the examiner confirmed our identity, while looking at photos of us.

During the three hours of the test, we could only hear the buzzing of a fly or the examiner's admonitions: "this is your first warning, one more and you'll have to leave," and "put your pencils down right now, if you keep on writing you'll have to leave the room."

Teachers sometimes speak of how far Chinese pupils will go to gain a few extra points. Some even put pieces of paper in their ears, or they send a brother or a friend who's more skilled at English to do the test for them. No wonder the gaokao and the IELTS have such tough security measures.

In the face of such a stern atmosphere, my personal qualms over being a student in her 30s stepping back into university, were quickly replaced with feelings of sympathy for Chinese students.

An English test is peanuts for an expat who just wants to learn and who voluntarily decided to apply to university, compared to the self-sacrifice, competitiveness and terror of the gaokao or the IELTS as life-defining moments for Chinese students.

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