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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Bjorn Nordtveit

Second Advisor

Sharon Rallis

Third Advisor

Laurel Smith-Doerr

Subject Categories

Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research | International and Comparative Education | Secondary Education | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education


This dissertation is based on a case study of a Beijing high school (referred to as “Gaozhong”) during the initial wave of reforms to the National College Entrance Exam (NCEE). Using the conceptual framework of Richard Scott’s “three pillars” of institutions (2008) to analyze stake holder perception toward the NCEE (administrators, teachers, parents, and students), this study identifies and examines the regulatory, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements that comprise the NCEE. Congruent with Scott’s theory that these the combined strength and interdependency between institutional elements prevent institutional change, this study also analyzes the three pillars as barriers to the implementation of NCEE reform at Gao Zhong high school. An institutional analysis of the NCEE argues for a perspective of the NCEE as the task of education rather than, as is often argued, the purpose of education in China. At Gao Zhong, an “authority of scores” underlies the regulatory pillar; participants stress the many procedures and outputs of the NCEE that enable both knowledge and student effort to be codified, assessed, and translated into access to higher education opportunity, all through the singular score of the NCEE. Nonetheless, what is valued and gained in education derives more from the process of the Exam, rather than the test itself, harking back to a long tradition in Chinese education on the importance of “character.” Meanwhile, the legitimacy of a “single score” on the NCEE is viewed as fair and objective despite participant awareness of inequality in educational resources and urban bias in quotas. Participants cognitively maintain the NCEE as an antidote to corruption and connections associated with wealth; their perspectives bring greater nuance to the meaning of “fairness” and “equality” in studies in Chinese education. Regarding NCEE reforms, findings suggest superficial rather than substantive change at Gao Zhong, and reveal deeper issues of NCEE reform as a whole. Of particular importance are non-test forms of assessment that lack the legitimacy of score-based assessment, and the issue of student choice across subjects within a system heavily weighted in favor of science rather than fine arts.


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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.