Tomorrow my daughter will take her Gaokao exams. This is China's national end of high school exam for university entrance - something akin to Americas SAT or GRE exams. It is commonly said that such exams, "Decide their fate."

However, there are many famous examples of successful people who didn't do well or even take such exams. For example: Richard Branson left school at 16 with poor academic performance but now is a multi billionaire. Educationalists like Ken Robinson claim that education and exams stifle the creativity required for real success.

In addition, the degrees that require the highest entrance exam grades may not actually result in the highest paid profession.

So the question is - Do exam end of high school exam marks really decide your fate. Is there a correlation between high school exam grades and future career success?

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    There is no claim here to prove or to disprove. In fact, this will surely be a question that is highly debated, with no answer in sight. You can give examples galore of people who have succeeded without an education or who relied on exactly that to succeed. Part of the issue will be how you define success, all of this is why this question (as is) should be closed.
    – user3344
    Jun 6, 2012 at 9:21
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    The point is, there is obviously some non-zero correlation. However, does your performance on an exam ensure that you will do well in any field? Of course not, as there are many factors to be considered, and many possible careers. And the fact is, some people are simply do not do well on tests, despite their having the necessary knowledge. Any single individual can indeed outperform or underperform the measure derived from a single test. That test measures only how well they performed on that day, on that test.
    – user3344
    Jun 6, 2012 at 12:33
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    Finally, IF a specific society chooses to make decisions about your future based on a test, then the test CAN be an arbiter that will decide your future, but only if you allow those decisions to control your life.
    – user3344
    Jun 6, 2012 at 12:36
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    How do you define success? Earning more money? Retiring early? Winning a Nobel prize? Having more children? More likely to marry? Earning rep on Stack Exchange?
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 6, 2012 at 13:12
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    Voting to close. There is no claim here that the exams do decide your future. I suspect that it may have more of an impact in China, or other communist countries than in the west but you have shown in your claim that there is no guarantee. I can probably find as many examples of people who did very well on the exam but had little success professionally.
    – Chad
    Jun 6, 2012 at 14:25

1 Answer 1


If the question is "Does level of education correlate with income in the United States?" then the answer is Yes.

Infoplease reveals the Median Annual Income, by Level of Education, 1990–2009 and the table has some very clear jumps as the level of education rises, dropping only once you reach a Doctorate.

e.g in 2008 (last year with full data), man with a high-school completion earns $43,165, compared with $33,435 for starting but not finishing. For a woman, the figures are $31,533 and $21,937 respectively.

If the question is "Do the grades achieved correlate with salary in the United States?", the answer is murkier, but Yes.

Academicians and business people have disagreed about whether grades predict occupational outcomes such as training success, job performance, and salary. Recent meta-analyses have suggested that grades are useful predictors of training success and job performance. Unfortunately, the results of meta-analyses examining the grades–salary relation were limited by methodological problems. These problems included confusing income and salary as the same dependent variable, not conducting moderator analyses, using unorthodox schemes of weighting correlations, and not correcting for research artifacts. The current meta-analysis focused only on studies that reported salary as the dependent variable and found uncorrected correlations of .13 for grades and starting salary, .18 for grades and current salary, and .05 for grades and salary growth. The correlations for grades and starting salary rose to approximately .20 when corrected for relevant artifacts and the corrected grades–current salary correlations rose to the mid- to high .20s. Moderator analyses are also reported.

I haven't read this paper (paywall), and note that it isn't clear about which education level is being analysed here - secondary? tertiary?

If the question is "Do SAT scores correlated with income in USA?", the answer is Yes, for SAT Math scores, according to an Honors project. (Caution: Honors project may not be to the same standards as peer-reviewed articles.)

This student attempted to model the future income of college students based on a number of variables, and found that their SAT Math score was a significant factor, but that their SAT verbal scores were not.

The results for the math and verbal variables are very interesting. The SAT math variable is significant in the regression, but the SAT verbal variable is insignificant. This supports the previous research. It implies that math ability is much more important than verbal or linguistic skills in most occupations. The results also suggest that math ability is more directly linked to acquiring human capital than verbal ability. The coefficient for the SAT math variable is above 10 in the regression. This means that a student that scores a 700 on the SAT math will make over $2,000 more each year on average than someone that scores a 500.

If the question is "Do high school exam grades correlate with salary in China?", it is complicated.

An interesting approach is taken by

First they show that one year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by 8.4 percent. Then, by comparing twins, they show that the schooling itself only accounts for 2.7 percent, and the rest are due to "omitted ability or the family effect".

More specifically, we find that high school education mainly serves as a mechanism to select college students, and has zero returns in terms of earnings. In contrast, both vocational school education and college education have a large return that is comparable to that found in rich Western countries.

So, doing well in exams may not directly lead to much greater earnings, but just open the door to an education that will.

Correlation is not causation! The income of the parents is a good predictor of a child's SAT scores. No doubt, it is also highly correlated to a child's future income levels.

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    This blows away what I was working on.
    – Ryathal
    Jun 6, 2012 at 15:36

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