Experts gather to consider comprehensive reform of college entrance examination

Achievements and problems in gaokao reforms

Before this year’s college admission concluded, experts had gathered in Shanghai to discuss reform of the gaokao.

The reform, piloted in Shanghai and Zhejiang Province, is believed to be the most comprehensive one in the history of gaokao, which was initiated in 1952, halted during the cultural revolution period (1966-76) and resumed in 1977.

Xiong Bingqi, vice director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, says that the reform plans to give students more options in subjects they want to learn in high school, but problems had been found in enforcement and some of the options were unable to be realized in reality.

“First of all, many schools treat it utilitarianly,” he said. “Although the reform schemes endow students 20 or 35 sets of subject choices in Shanghai and Zhejiang respectively, our survey found that most schools actually could only offer seven or eight sets.”

One reason for schools failing to offer all sets of course combinations is that it needs more staff and facilities and increases difficulty in school management.

Final evaluation

One survey conducted in Pudong New Area in Shanghai showed that local schools had to add at least 30 percent of teachers to offer all subject sets, according to Xiong.

“Gaokao score is still the final evaluation on schools’ education quality,” he said. “So school managers are afraid that students and parents would be angry at them if students’ final scores are dissatisfying. Therefore, many schools only offer sets of the courses that they are most capable of teaching or easiest for students to get high scores.”

The other problem was caused by increased exam opportunities.

In Shanghai, only written English test can be taken twice. But in Zhejiang, students can also take the tests of all optional courses for a second time. But actually, when students have the second chance, few of them would give it up.

Take the written English test for example. All the students in Shanghai had taken the first and more than 95 percent took the second one, too. Many students wish they could get higher scores in the second test, no matter it’s their own decision or schools’ requirement.

Problem is more serious in Zhejiang with second chances also available for optional courses. “We’ve found it had disrupted the teaching order in high schools,” said Xiong. “Some schools only taught the optional courses in the first year so that students could take the optional tests in the second year and save the rest time for compulsory courses if they got satisfying scores. In this way, students actually face the pressure of gaokao from the very beginning day of high school life and lost the right order in learning knowledge.”

He further said: “One purpose of the reform was to promote comprehensive development of students and prevent students from focusing on several courses at an early stage, but the result was against the aim. Traditionally, students made their choices in the second year, but now it was brought ahead to the first year.”

Secondly, students also showed utilitarian attitudes. Many students haven’t made choices based on their own interests, including choosing subjects in high school, colleges, or majors in colleges.

“The reform has not changed the selection criterion — total score of each student,” said Xiong. “So students mainly consider which courses could get more points for them when choosing optional courses.”

One obvious result was that the number of students choosing physics was very small because it’s difficult and competitive. As some universities have listed physics as a must for some majors, many students chose to give up the majors even if they were interested in them. They would rather choose less difficult courses to get higher scores and enter reputed universities, rather than their favorite majors.

Finally, only 30 percent of this year’s gaokao examinees had chosen to take the test of physics. In the original system with science and liberal arts students division, 60 to 70 percent students learned physics. Xiong feared that it would influence the pre-college education quality in China.

Utilitarian thoughts

In choosing colleges and majors, students and their parents were also utilitarian, as are many members of our society. Traditionally, Chinese people are interested in the examinees with highest scores each year. Under the new gaokao system, students took different tests and there should not be the best examinee in the traditional sense. Media in Zhejiang still had massive reports on the students with highest score this year.

“Actually, students were also confused why should they be graded while the grades would still be converted into points in college admission,” Xiong said.

He stressed that the latest reform focused on course choices and tests, but hasn’t changed the basic admission rule.

“Students are still selected mainly based on scores,” he said. “Though the reform in Shanghai added comprehensive evaluation record of non-academic performance, it hasn’t shown its effect in the admission process.”

Xiong Qingnian, director of the Research Institute for Higher Education at Fudan University and one of the admission interviewers of the university, also said that the records could not show students’ distinct achievements.

“Every student has attended investigative courses and voluntary services, but we cannot know how deep they have done and whether they were really willing to do these things,” he said, adding that the university’s independent admission program was much more capable of assessing students’ comprehensive ability with self-designed test.

Xiong Bingqi suggested other provinces and cities that planned to adopt gaokao reform in the following years should learn lessons from Zhejiang and Shanghai to avoid these problems.

First of all, governments and schools should prepare enough staff and facilities for the reform, especially the free choice of subjects, he said.

“The Shanghai and Zhejiang experiences showed that they lack the preparation and proved that without enough teachers and facilities, students could not enjoy the real freedom of choice,” he said.

He also suggested schools improve career planning education among students to promote their independence and help them make rational decisions in choosing subjects, tests majors and colleges.

Authorities should discuss with colleges and high schools to improve the admission system designs, according to Xiong. Under the current system, students who have chosen any one of the three courses required by a college could apply for it. He believed it was easy to make students choose subjects utilitarianly in high schools.

“Maybe it’s more suitable to require that applicants should take tests of at least two necessary courses,” he said. “Authorities should organize more serious discussions with colleges and high schools, listening to their needs. They should not separate high school from universities.”

He also pointed out that some colleges had set their requirements on students’ optional course experience too randomly as they were in fear that students would not apply for them if their requirements were too difficult to meet.

Increased burdens

Meanwhile, he also believed students should not be given two chances in optional tests as it was unfair since students were graded according to ranking percentage of their scores.

“The top 10 percent examinees in the second test may not be as good as the same percentage of students in the first one,” he said. “It would also prompt schools and students to take utilitarian choices.”

The added chances also increased costs of organization and burdens on students, he said, adding that the only chance should be given in the final year so as to keep the right order of high school education. He also urged promotion of independent admission in colleges and praised Shanghai’s piloting spring gaokao as a good example.

In the spring exam, students take united tests of Chinese, math and foreign language.

Those above the required lowest scores could attend interviews organized by colleges independently to test students’ comprehensive knowledge and skills and admitted according to their performance in the tests and interviews.

“Colleges have more autonomous right in selecting the right person they want in this system,” he said. “Unfortunately, only 2,000 students could be admitted by local universities in this way each year.”

He wished the practice could be expanded and the summer gaokao could also adopt similar procedures.

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