Proposals to reduce emphasis on English-language testing is a huge relief to Chinese students.
It is reported that education authorities in Beijing, Shandong and Jiangsu provinces are mulling reforms of gaokao, or college entrance exam, and zhongkao, or high school entrance exam. While they vary in content and scale, it is notable that these mooted reforms share something in common: whittling down English as a tested subject and reducing its weight in overall admissions test scores.
Beijing has gone the furthest among all the reformers. Starting in 2016, the points for English as a main tested subject of the Beijing gaokao will drop from the current 150 to 100. The total score remains 750.
Also in Beijing, the zhongkao English will also have its points shaved, from 120 to 100.
According to education officials, after the reforms take effect, English tests will be administered twice a year, and students can sit them multiple times, with their best scores included in the total gaokao scores.
The reform has been greeted with both plaudits and brickbats. After interviewing a few local students, the Beijing News reported on Tuesday that students who excelled at English perceive the dwindling weight of English, a subject taught to every Chinese student from primary school to university, as a blow to their competitive strengths.
Those who view English as their nemesis applaud the flexibility in terms of how the test is taken.
Not a favorite subject
The latter group seems to be the majority, considering that English isn’t many Chinese students’ favorite subject.
According to a survey on ifeng.com, a major web portal, 82.6 percent of the respondents are in favor of watering down the significance of English. Some even suggest dropping it from gaokao altogether.
Recently I have been coaching my ninth-grader cousin in English. He is preparing for zhongkao next year. Despite my best efforts, he had a harrowing time memorizing the past and perfect tenses of verbs and other simple grammatical rules. I watched as he suffered, and ended up concluding that he really wasn’t cut out for the language. So why make him suffer?
The new arrangement is commendable in many aspects. Chinese students like my cousin have been dedicating way too much time and energy to a language most of them won’t use much in their future careers.
The countless English cram sessions they must endure are more a result of resignation to a demanding syllabus than a real passion for the language.
Less decisive English-language tests will create the expectation that English is not that sought-after any longer, rendering some of the cram classes unnecessary. The move is a timely development to cool down the blind mania for English nationwide.
More importantly, the lopsided emphasis on English is ridiculous compared with the increasingly scant attention given to Chinese education. Isn’t it tragic that Chinese children today cannot recite ancient poems or read and write properly in their mother tongue, whereas they are good at reciting English jingles they don’t really understand?
Identity in danger
In a word, our education is in great danger of sacrificing its own identity and traditions for a foreign import.
English should not be an enforced national pastime as it is now. In fact, the way it is taught in China has only sapped students’ interest in it. A lot of educators and teachers are largely responsible for teaching by rote and making the subject widely disliked.
The incoming reform will inevitably fuel the anxiety of a relative few who hope to gain advantage in gaokao through better English grades. And it will probably hurt the interests of schools that offer “uplifting courses,” namely, cram sessions. But that’s what reform is about. It is a tradeoff, with gains and losses.
Contrary to what some may think, the reform actually is long overdue in restraining the national fervor about a not-too-relevant subject.
As the Oriental Morning Post opined about this reform on Wednesday, “No matter what, institutional (educational) reform will cause pain, which might not be a bad thing, because it may cure, cleanse and heal past mistakes.”
The real concern is whether reduced emphasis on English will mean a real reduction of student burdens.
In Beijing’s case, the 50 points cut from English will instead go to Chinese and the integrated test of mathematics, physics and chemistry.
Could the new arrangement only shift the burden from testing and cramming English to other courses? Will students enjoy a respite just because English’s role is less decisive?
After all, if the purpose of reform in Beijing and elsewhere in the country is to truly reduce the widely acknowledged academic burden on students, a holistic approach would limit the welter of all the cram sessions, after-school classes, and homework, not just English courses.
Beijing’s education authorities have taken a step in the right direction, but they need to follow it with other moves to further reduce the burden on students — namely, reducing the importance of the grueling gaokao as a whole.