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July 9, 2020, 7:54 a.m. EDT

Chinese students are taking the infamous college entrance exam this week amid coronavirus controls, flooding and scandals

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Ten million Chinese students are taking the most important exam of their life this week — and conditions couldn’t be worse.

The National College Entrance Examination, known as the “gaokao,” began Tuesday amid pandemic restrictions, testing scandals, an earthquake and devastating flooding. 

The annual exam is a source of student dread even in normal times. Unlike college admissions in the U.S. and elsewhere, where applicants are assessed on multiple factors, the gaokao alone determines whether and where a student is accepted.

The test had already been postponed by a month because of the pandemic, which gave students more time to cram — and to worry. 

“I’ve been taking online prep classes each day since May, but I feel less ready than ever,” Beijing student Li Wei told MarketWatch. The high-school senior said the pandemic and the nervousness of waiting made it hard to focus.

His sentiment was echoed by a recent survey in which 60% of respondents said the pandemic had negatively affected their mental preparedness for the exam. Nearly a third said their scores on practice tests had declined.

But the hindrances have not been limited to the coronavirus. The worst flooding in years hit south China this week, leaving more than 100 people dead or missing and causing $6 billion in damages, the Ministry of Emergency Management said . The downpours delayed tests and stranded students in several cities.  One video showed students piled in the front loader of a tractor, being ferried across inundated streets to a testing center.

On Tuesday, at least five students en route to a test site in Guizhou Province were killed when their bus plunged into a reservoir. The next day, an earthquake in neighboring Yunnan Province sent a hundred test takers fleeing classrooms. 

All this follows a scandal involving the gaokao that has caused an uproar across the country. Several teachers and school officials in the eastern province of Shandong are accused of involvement in identity theft driven by students seeking to misrepresent their test scores. Chinese media reports said public data showed evidence of hundreds of such cases over recent years.

These obstacles to the administration of a test that can profoundly influence students’ futures come at a time of historically dismal prospects for China’s graduates.  A record-high 9 million Chinese are set to graduate this year and will face the country’s worst job market in decades. Unemployment among those aged 16 to 24 hit 14% this year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics — double the official rate nationwide.

Tanner Brown covers China for MarketWatch and Barron’s.

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