IN THE past few days nearly 10m young Chinese have received their results from the world’s largest and most important academic exam, commonly known as the gaokao. In some places the news has been sent to them by text message—an innovation that has done nothing to compensate for the horrors of what they have endured: years of cramming at the expense of any other activity in the hope of a gaokao score that will qualify them for admission to a leading university. In China even more than elsewhere, achievement in education is judged not by how well you perform at university, but by which one you attend. Everything, therefore, depends on the gaokao.

The exam is both cherished and despised. It is praised by many as being a relatively corruption-free method of ensuring advancement for those who study hard. The nation rejoiced when the gaokao was restored in 1977 after the death of Mao, who had scrapped it and filled colleges with ill-educated devotees of his cult. But many people resent the huge stress it imposes on adolescents. In recent years, along with the rapid growth of China’s middle class, the numbers seeking education abroad, mainly in the West, have soared. Last year more than 600,000 did so, four times as many as a decade earlier. Escaping the gaokao ordeal is often cited as a reason.

The gaokao is flawed, however, not only because so many young people’s lives are so profoundly affected by the results of one exam. Both the test and the schooling that prepares students for it are unfair and ill-suited to the needs of a country that wants its workers to be more innovative. A common complaint about the gaokao is that it requires so much rote-learning, at least for those parts that do not involve solving mathematical puzzles and the like. That is a problem common to many exams, but the supreme importance of the gaokao means that schools usually focus only on cramming students for it during their three years of senior high school. Other skills that are needed for the creation of the “knowledge economy” that President Xi Jinping says he wants to build, such as teamwork and creativity, are neglected.

The government accepts that this must change. But parents complain whenever schools encourage students to do things other than learn gaokao-required facts. That is understandable: they want their children to get into one of China’s handful of globally respected colleges. The answer lies in reforming the gaokao and, over time, for the government to focus more on turning China’s many bad universities into better ones.

Another worry is that the supposed meritocratic virtues of the gaokao are not what they seem. For sure, those who get into the best universities are chosen for their scores, not their political connections. But those who have the best chance of scoring well are rich city-dwellers. Poorer people in many countries suffer disadvantages in education, but in China such problems are magnified by government spending on schools that is heavily skewed in favour of cities. Free education ends after junior high school. The crucial part that prepares students for gaokao can involve crippling expenses for poorer families. In big cities such as Beijing, the children of rural migrants are often barred from entry to schools as a result of the pernicious hukou system of household registration that gives greater benefits and privileges to long-established urban families.

There is also a problem with the exam questions themselves. Students have to tailor their answers to suit the Communist Party’s views. This year candidates were required to write essays about the thoughts of Mr Xi. Arguing against them was not an option. Sun Chunlan, a deputy prime minister, recently said the gaokao system was “tasked with the important mission to educate and pick talent for the state”. It certainly does a good job of encouraging toadyism.

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The gaokao system badly needs reform. In the West, however, a growing number of universities are admitting Chinese students on the strength of gaokao scores, rather than results from internationally recognised entrance exams (see article). They should think twice. No institution that purports to uphold free thinking should endorse an exam that forces applicants to conform with political orthodoxy.