Despite the important role played by examinations in educational stratification and mobility in China, to our knowledge there is no literature in English that investigates the impact of exams on educational attainment with empirical data. We address this gap with an investigation of how examinations shape opportunities for children of the rural poor, a vulnerable group of great contemporary policy significance. After introducing China's high school and college entrance examination systems, we present a case study of examinations and educational transitions in rural Gansu Province, one of China's poorest provinces. We offer a snapshot of educational progress among rural young adults in 2009, with special attention to social selection in exam taking and outcomes, and to the role of examinations in shaping subsequent educational transitions. As expected, high school and college entrance exam results play an important role in determining transitions to secondary and tertiary education, and in determining the type of education received. Exams reinforce inequalities observed in other stages of educational transition, but generalised disparities in educational opportunity precede exams, shape who takes exams, and emerge net of exam results. The patterns of advantage and disadvantage associated with different dimensions of household and village socioeconomic status do not tell a simple story: different factors matter at different stages of education. At the early stages, residing in villages that have an established tradition of education, along with the infrastructure to support education, is important. Residing in a wealthier household shapes the chance of persisting in the system to the examination stage, and offers second chance possibilities later in the game: wealthier youth are more likely to make it to both university and vocational education. Notably, father's education matters most consistently, not only for 'survival' to exam-taking and supporting tertiary transitions, but also for performance. Disadvantages throughout the process faced by the children of poorly educated fathers, even after accounting for household economic status, village context and performance, speak to equity issues within the education system that require ameliorative strategies beyond addressing cost barriers.
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