China has recently unveiled reforms in its high school examination and college recruitment processes. According to the new scheme, during senior middle school, students will no longer be separated into arts or science tracks. The final grade on each student's college entrance examination—or gaokao in Chinese—will be composed of two parts: Scores from tests in Chinese, mathematics and English will form the base score, and points from proficiency tests in three other academic disciplines will then be added. Students will take proficiency tests for courses upon their completion. They can include the three highest scores into their gaokao grades. Meanwhile, every student will have two opportunities to take the English examination, and can choose one score from the two, which will factor into his or her final grade.
The gaokao currently takes place in June every year and consists of four tests in Chinese, mathematics and English, as well as a science test for those in the science track or a liberal arts test for those in the arts track. As for the public, the question now is what impact this new scheme will have on students and senior middle school education. How should schools arrange classes? How will current students cope with the newly unified tracks of study?
Some students and parents have opposed the new structure, saying that the separation of science and liberal arts puts less pressure on students—now they must place equal emphasis on all subjects, whereas focusing on fewer courses can enable them to excel in specific areas. Commentators from China's media sphere have weighed in on possible outcomes:
Xiong Bingqi (Lanzhou Daily): It is said that the purpose of these reforms is to offer more choices to students and to reduce the pressure of stringent examinations on them, so that students will develop in accordance with their interests. However, as the college recruitment system remains largely unchanged, regardless of whether or not science and arts courses are separated in senior middle school, not much will change. Worse still, students will have to prepare even harder for the gaokao throughout their three years in senior middle school.
Secondary education will continue to be examination-oriented, as colleges will still recruit students according to academic performance. Owing to this, even if science and arts classes are required for all, the new model can play only a limited role in improving students' overall competence.
Meanwhile, students may find themselves shouldering even heavier academic burdens. Academic proficiency examinations must be taken very seriously. If the tests for some courses are conducted during the first two years of senior middle school and then the courses are considered finished, it actually means students will be coping with the pressure of the gaokao from the day they enter secondary school, rather than the beginning of their third year.
Though education authorities argue that the reforms will help to dilute the pressure associated with the gaokao, the problem is whether a student will be given a second chance if he or she does terribly on the proficiency test for a certain subject. It is mentioned in the reform scheme that two examinations can be considered in some provinces where extraneous conditions allow, but in reality, most provinces will offer students just one attempt. As a result, if a student fails right off the bat, there will be even greater pressure to make up the score later on.
The recent gaokao reforms are intended to cover two issues: One is the revision of the examination system and the other is a change in the college recruitment system, with the latter being of greater importance. Without real reforms in that area, we can only expect to see limited advancements. Over the past two decades, gaokao reforms have continually focused solely on the subjects being tested, and this time around is no exception.
Mu Xuchong (www.gmw.cn): Under the separation scheme, students begin to focus on science or arts at a very early stage in their education. As a result, their minds and views are limited to certain areas, and their sphere of knowledge does not meet the requirements of modern society. How much does this hinder their future development, as a person and as an employee? As it stands, quite a few science-focused students are lacking the ability to express themselves with words and are without basic arts or cultural knowledge. On the other side of the spectrum, students of the arts are stuck with very basic scientific knowledge and are unpracticed in logical scientific thinking. This is a direct and negative result of the separation of subjects in senior middle school. When the separation scheme is abolished, the situation can be expected to improve.
Examinations are the most prudent way to test students' academic knowledge and to encourage them to study hard. Tests are necessary to gauge understanding. Ending the separation of two academic fields, therefore, makes every subject worthy of study. For now, the most important issue is improving the availability of different disciplines at the senior middle school stage, making them useful for learners following the latest reforms.
Du Jianwei (Sanjin City News): The reforms will provide students with more opportunities to fully display their abilities and talents. Decades of separating the arts and sciences have led to an imbalance in knowledge for the majority of students. When one set of disciplines are focused upon, the others are effectively ignored. Thus, the nation's current education model produces just two types of graduates: logic-reliant thinkers and creativity-focused thinkers, which in the long run will only hamper the country's development.
Through this round of reforms, it is hoped that providing a more even education across a variety of subjects will produce more talented students with higher academic abilities. When students are no longer separated by subjects, schools can produce graduates with innumerable talents. Students with a more comprehensive knowledge base can enter college and then choose specialized courses according to their interests. Thanks to the vast array of knowledge they stand to gain from senior middle school, they can go farther in life.
Liu Yunxi (www.rednet.cn): Combining science and the arts will help students develop skills across the board. The latest reforms focus on how it will be conducted and how that will influence the education model in schools. What will be tested and how tests are taken tell schools which subjects to cover and how. Students are expected to fully tap into their potential.
Whether or not academic separation will hinder professional skill sets is impossible to gauge. Specialized education is a task for colleges, not senior middle schools. Ending the segregation of school subjects is the inevitable solution for fostering professionals who are capable in both scientific and artistic fields.
Lian Hongyang (Guangzhou Daily): Disputes over whether or not students should be separated along the lines of science and the arts are, at their core, really over what kind of education senior middle schools should provide. Are they meant to raise upstanding members of society or help to prepare students for a college education? If their task is the latter, the separation of science and arts is a better choice.
If senior middle school education is a means through which to impart knowledge to students, however, all courses should be combined. Only a small fraction of students will later grow up to work as specialized professionals in highly advanced areas, and education for this should be imparted during college, not in senior middle school. Society-wide education needs to teach students common, useful and comprehensive thinking skills. Perhaps an even more wide-ranging subject set in this stage of education will help students as they move on to professional research in college.