China is changing the way it educates students, or at least, it’s investigating different paths and tweaking some of the ways it does things. The biggest move is one that steps away from the reliance on gaokao, the national exams to determine who gets into college.

It’s not as if China is doing away with the exams, a tradition which dates back to the 10th century, but they have seen a reduction in the number of kids taking them, from 10.5 million down to 9.3 million between 2008 and 2010. Out of a population of over 1 billion that isn’t a lot of people, which is part of the problem. There aren’t enough colleges to go around, and while success on the gaokao is still the best way to insure social mobility, everybody knows the chances are very slim.

A lot of the children of the rising Chinese nouveau riche are going to college outside of the People’s Republic. In response, China has begun changing the admissions process to put less focus on rote learning, proven out by the gaokao, and more emphasis on analysis and applied learning.

China hasn’t seen a lot of innovators coming out of their colleges, which is part of the problem they’re trying to fix. Too much focus on rote learning, something that the American education system has been pushing back against the whole time No Child Left Behind has been in effect, doesn’t exactly lead to a lot of new developments in science, engineering, or the arts.

Changing admissions standards might be taking some weight off the gaokao, but it still isn’t making Chinese teenagers’ lives any easier. They still average 1.5 hours of sleep less than students in other counties because they spend so much time studying, being tutored, and so on. It’s to be expected in a country where so few people actually get to go to college, but some educators and even policy makers are starting to look for alternatives.