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China announces plans to reform national college entrance exam

China’s Ministry of Education released plans this week to reform the gaokao – the national college entrance exam – over the balance of this decade.

The gaokao is a highly competitive and rigorous entrance exam and Chinese universities rely heavily (even exclusively in some cases) on the exam results when selecting students for admission. This means that the national exams have a profound influence on the Chinese school system and on the preparation of Chinese students for higher education and/or further studies abroad.

The Ministry’s plans for reform – and especially the announced changes with respect to testing for English proficiency – have been highly anticipated and much discussed in China. A recent guest editorial in University World News sets out the possible implications for both students and international educators alike:

“China is not only the country with the largest numbers of students studying abroad, but one of the few non-English-speaking countries that make English a compulsory subject throughout secondary school and a requisite for higher education.

Any decrease in English ability and consequent global competencies could lead to a decrease in the number and quality of Chinese students studying abroad.”

Further details of the reforms will be released in the months ahead. For the moment, this much appears clear:

  • Under the reforms announced this week, the English test will be removed from the main gaokao examination;
  • Rather than the single testing opportunity available under the unified exam, the English test will now be offered to students separately and several times during the year. Chinese students will be able to determine when and how often they take the English exam and only their highest test score will be counted;
  • The test will be revised to achieve a more balanced measure of a student’s language proficiency, including listening and speaking skills.

Tang Shengchang, an expert with the national education and examination steering committee, suggested to the China Daily:

“A one-time examination usually can’t reflect a student’s real level, and it’s a kind of unfairness to students… But after several tests, I think, the English level of students can be tested in a more accurate way.”

Observers – including Chinese parents and students – are split in their assessment of the change. Some, such as Shengchang, see it as a positive development that will provide a better measure of students’ English skills. Others see it as a way of reducing the notorious stress levels associated with the national exams. Liu Limin, Vice Minister of Education, commented that the advantage of the new policy is that students can choose when and how often they take the tests.

“That is to say, students do not have to study English extremely hard or spend so much time preparing for the English test before gaokao,” he said. “It will be a big relief for students.”

At the same time, the planned reforms have given rise to a concern that removing the English test from the unified college entrance exam will diminish the emphasis on English in the Chinese education system and/or in the college admissions process.

However, given China’s emphasis on globalisation and English’s position as the lingua franca of an increasingly interconnected world, it seems unlikely that Chinese students will reduce their focus on building English proficiency anytime soon.

Yu Lizhong is the chancellor of New York University Shanghai. Classes are given in English at the university and students are required to have a high standard of English for admission. In a recent interview with China Economic Net he said:

“As far as I see, the reform doesn’t mean English is no longer important for Chinese students after it will be excluded from the unified college entrance exam. In a way, English is even more important than before since the test would only serve as reference, while every college and university, even every major, can have different requirements of a student’s English skills under a diverse evaluation system.”

Further details of planned gaokao reforms will follow in the first half of 2014. “The reform will be piloted in some provinces from 2014, and their experience will be summarised and expanded in 2017,” reports China Daily. “By 2020, a new testing and recruiting system will be formed and promoted nationwide.”

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