Exam change won't dampen English fever

Updated: 2013-10-26 07:54

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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If you're an English teacher in China and have heard about plans to reduce the role of English in the all-important national college entrance examination, or gaokao, don't worry, be happy! Chinese people's affinity for the language isn't about to wane, if anything it'll become stronger.

As part of a nationwide drive to overhaul the gaokao system, Beijing said on Monday that starting 2016, the score of English would drop from 150 to 100 on its plan, while the total marks for Chinese would be raised from 150 to 180. Currently, gaokao weighs English, Chinese and math equally. Even before the Monday announcement, Jiangsu province had caused a national stir by reportedly mulling the idea of excluding English from the provincial-level college entrance exam.

But I'll not read too much into such shifts, not even as the beginning of the end to a decades-long obsession with English, despite the fact that gaokao sets the direction for formal education across the country.

The reasons are simple. In any given year in the past few decades, hundreds of millions of Chinese students were learning English, driven by an instrumental motivation. Parents know English is the lingua franca of international business, which would offer opportunities for upward mobility and economic success if their children become fluent in it.

Cuts in the number of classes for English in schools may be a windfall for the many language tuition centers that have been thriving on parents' eagerness to give their children an early leg up and are estimated to have a combined yearly revenue of 200 million yuan ($32.89 million). They'll also encourage an earlier exodus of those who plan to renege on gaokao to private feeder schools of foreign universities.

Being tested for less score doesn't mean the subject can be taken lightly. Beijing will hold English exams twice a year and a student could take the exams more than once a year to earn the best score to seek admission to a college. Remember, gaokao is so competitive that students could spend a year or more just to raise a few points to surge ahead.

Some education experts suspect that a new grading system to assess students' proficiency in English in lieu of a gaokao test, as proposed by Jiangsu province, could make college admission as tough as before, because a top university might demand scores in English through a separate test regardless of a student's total gaokao score. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, one of the most respected and foresighted Chinese statesmen, advocated English as the medium of instruction in the management school of the prestigious Tsinghua University, because "in a globalizing economy, if you cannot interact with foreigners, how can one be part of the world economy?"

Now the question is, if English is so important, why have education authorities chosen it to spearhead the overhaul of an exam system that incarnates both a major education impasse and the pinnacle of Chinese social justice?

While popularly seen as the fairest criterion for admission to college, gaokao has also been criticized for emphasizing rote memory rather than creativity of students, admissions based on a single test and a lack of recruitment autonomy by colleges.

English has become an apparent target of reform because of a famous classroom teaching tradition that encourages memorizing textbooks rather than communication skills. However, the downgrade may also be the consequence of a growing controversy over the enthusiasm for English, as critics worry about its usefulness for most college graduates as well as a potential erosion of Chinese language, culture and identity.

But parents who want to give their children the best may have found some opponents' rhetoric hollow and even hypocritical. For instance, it's increasingly difficult to find a successful Chinese figure who hasn't given or planned to give, his/her child an all-English education.

It doesn't take Zhu's wisdom to realize why students will continue to be motivated to learn English, even for fewer points at gaokao.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. dr.baiping@gmail.com

(China Daily 10/26/2013 page5)