context: Zhejiang, the petri dish of new gaokao arrangements (gaokao 2.0), scheduled the English section of its 2019 college entrance exams for 3 November 2018. The abnormal results of the test, unveiled 24 November 2018, provoked widespread discontent. The preliminary investigation report declared the grading ‘terribly wrong’ on 5 December 2018. Two officials were discharged and others reprimanded.

Zhejiang Educational Examinations Authority explained on 27 November 2018 that test score anomalies were due to the decision to curve the grades of the reading and essay sections, as some questions were significantly harder than those in previous tests. Still, according to WeChat account EDU, Zhejiang authorities mishandled the crisis because they

  • failed to kept exam questions at the same level of difficulty
  • changed grading policies without authorization
  • lied to cover their mistakes when initially asked by the general public about the test

In the past four decades, gaokao has been a major vehicle for upward social mobility, contributing to an equitable, egalitarian and meritocratic society, says a People’s Daily editorial. The behaviour of Zhejiang authorities was ‘inexcusable’, the editorial argues, not only because of mistakes and poor management once the story broke, but also because they undermined public trust in the government and in gaokao’s fairness.

Policymakers should draw lessons from the Zhejiang scandal that the legitimacy of policy initiatives relies on procedural justice during implementation, says Zheng Fangxian 郑方贤 Shanghai Municipal Educational Examinations Authority director. The gaokao 2.0 reform seeks to reduce the burden of students and teachers by allowing students to take the exams more than once and rolling out the method of ‘grading on a curve’. However, Zhejiang authorities tarnished the legitimacy of those policies, leading self-interested and risk-averse officials to avoid taking initiative to fix the problem. Ultimately, the crisis will place much-delayed reform in other pilot provinces in further jeopardy, Zheng worries.