The Beijing Municipal Commission of Education has officially released its new policy for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gaokao) that will take effect in 2020. The biggest highlight of the April 7 announcement is that the policy breaks the Gakao tested courses into humanities and science.

The reform will also affect the High School Entrance Exam, known as the Zhongkao. From 2020, Beijing’s middle school students will be free to choose tests in their three strongest subjects from chemistry, physics, biology, geography, history and politics. Testing of math, Chinese and English will continue to be mandatory.

“We are making the change to foster well-rounded students,” said a director from the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education who refused to be named.

Exam of Controversy

For decades, the Gaokao has been every Chinese student’s worst nightmare, being the only way to enter the kind of university that can lead to a well-paid career with respectable social status. It’s a test that many begin training for as early as elementary school.

For senior high school students, the test is a source of personal and family anxiety. In Beijing, it’s even worse, as students must declare the schools they hope to enter before even taking the test.

“The problem today is that students are only told to study hard to get high scores on every exam. They know nothing about their life or career path except for getting the best exam scores. When it comes time to declare a university major, most have no idea what to do,” said Liu Changming, principal of Beijing No.4 Middle School, one of city’s most highly ranked schools.

What is more troublesome for some students is they are forced to choose between the humanities and sciences in 10th grade. The choice is heartbreaking for students who have an interest in both.

“That choice originated in the Gaokao system, which split the two for testing. The result was science students with brilliant performance within their field, but who lacked even the most basic knowledge about the humanities,” said An Li, a writer for the Bohai Morning Post.

Working Better

Aware of the weaknesses in the Gaokao system, both the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education and schools have been searching for a solution. The first step was to diminish the weight of Gaokao scores in school admissions.

Beijing Foreign Studies University updated its admission policy this year, reducing Gaokao’s weight to 70 percent of total admission consideration. The remaining 30 percent will be based on tests of foreign language ability. Candidates must have a letter of recommendation from their high school to participate in the new tests.

Besides splitting the humanities and sciences, the new Gaokao also enables students to pick three voluntary test areas outside math, Chinese and English, making it more similar to the Zhongkao. Starting in 2017, the English test will be Internet-based. English oral tests will appear on the Gaokao in 2021.

“The new policy leads students to concentrate more on linking English with everyday life and assists them mastering daily conversation,” Zhao Ying, an English teacher from Beijing No. 166 High School, told “It encourages students to speak more.”

Future Reforms

“Gaokao’s math section is still a little too hard for most students to master. That’s why I support lowering its difficulty to invite more people to fall in love with the discipline,” said He Jigang, a math teacher from Jiangsu province and advisor at the 21st Century International General Education Revolution Forum.

He is not the only one dreaming of changes to the high school math syllabus.

Xie Xiaoqing, a director from Beijing Language and Culture University, said teaching students how to think critically is more important than mere reasoning ability.

China’s critical thinking education lags severely behind Western countries. Lack of basic critical thinking skills is the leading cause of Chinese students’ poor scores on the SAT, one of America’s college entrance tests, according to a report by Duke University. Critical thinking continues to be a barrier for Chinese students planning to take the GRE.

“If the Gaokao adds more questions requiring students to use their imagination and critical thinking ability, I am sure they will start to teach children critical thinking skills in kindergarten,” said Zhu Qingshi, head of South University of Science and Technology of China.

“Frankly speaking, the controversy around the Gaokao should not be about cancelling or containing the examination. It should be about how to make the test smarter,” Zhu said.

Karena Hu

About Karena Hu

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Karena was born with the English name Karen but decided to add an “a.” She dreamed of a career in astronomy, but bad scores in physics kept her out of the science department. She seeks other worlds in reading and writing and is a super fan of the Hunger Games trilogy.

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