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May 31st, 2009
Taking “The Tall Test”: Chinese Prep School
Lesson Overview

Funding for the educational materials was provided by The Overbrook Foundation.

For a printer-friendly version of this lesson click here: (PDF) (RTF)


TIME ALLOTMENT: Two to three 45-minute class periods


In this lesson, students will examine the culture of a Chinese prep school as its graduating class studies for the national college entrance exam—the Gaokao. A good performance on this single “Tall Test” is critical to students aspiring to a place at one of two top universities, which in turn all but guarantees a leading role in China’s growing economy and international presence.

After first sampling the difficulty of the Gaokao for themselves, students will explore daily life in the highly pressurized world of Bashu Middle School #2 through the differing perspectives of its students. A culminating activity invites students to research, compare, and evaluate the college entrance exam systems of several other countries.


New York State Standards

Standard 2: World History

Use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in world history and examine the broad sweep of history from a variety of perspectives.

  • Key Idea 1: The study of world history requires an understanding of world cultures and civilizations, including an analysis of important ideas, social and cultural values, beliefs, and traditions. This study also examines the human condition and the connections and interactions of people across time and space and the ways different people view the same event or issue from a variety of perspectives.
  • Key Idea 2: Establishing timeframes, exploring different periodizations, examining themes across time and within cultures, and focusing on important turning points in world history help organize the study of world cultures and civilizations.
  • Key Idea 3: Study of the major social, political, cultural, and religious developments in world history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups.



Selected segments from the China Prep episode of the PBS series Wide Angle, which follows Chinese students through their final high-pressure year at an elite high school, where eighteen hundred students vie for spots in Beijing’s top two universities.

Access the streaming video at the Video Segments Page.


The Gaokao: How Would You Fare?

A sampling of questions from the Chinese college entrance exam from PBS’s WIDE ANGLE website for “China Prep.”

Entrance Exams Around the World

A short video from PBS’s Wide Angle website for China Prep featuring candid assessments by students around the world of their nation’s college entrance exams.


Students will be able to:

  • Define the Gaokao and its role in determining who the future leaders of 21st century China will be.
  • Describe the daily environment and routine at a Chinese prep school.
  • Discuss the ongoing power of the Chinese Communist Party even as the nation has adopted a capitalist economic system.
  • Compare and contrast differing perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese educational system.
  • Consider alternate definitions of “freedom” in a non-democratic political context.


Ideally, each student will have their own internet-enabled computer for the first activity, although students can be grouped as necessary to share computers. At least five internet-enabled computers will be necessary for the Culminating Activity.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

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