In December 2013, China’s Ministry of Education (MoE) released a draft reform plan for Gaokao, China’s national college entrance examination. Open for public discussion, the proposed reforms that received the most attention were those concerning the testing and weighting of English language. The proposals are briefly described here, followed by some possible explanations for why the changes are being suggested.
The first proposed change to the examination of English language is that students be allowed to sit the exam more than once. The chance to sit the test multiple times a year will enable students to improve their performance. Only the highest attained result will be in used in calculating their final overall score.
The second change is the weighting that will be given to English in computing the overall college entrance Gaokao score. Beijing Municipality has stated that from 2015 the weighting for English will drop from 150 to 100 points from the total of 750. The total points attached to the Chinese language exam would also rise from 150 to 180. Currently English, Chinese and maths receive the same weighting. Jiangsu has gone further, stating that it may remove English from Gaokao entirely.
Some analysts have said that 2013 may be remembered as the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way China views the English language. By reverse logic it might also be seen as the year that China became so comfortable with the efficiency of integrating English language into its system that it began to take this for granted. Or, with more foreigners studying and working in China, more opportunities for Chinese to travel abroad, and more disposable incomes to spend on English language learning support, it may also be that China wished to emphasise that ‘hard skills’ like maths should weigh more than a second language.
In China today there is considerable inequality when it comes to foreign (English) language ability within the home. This is correlated to disposable income and geography, as is access to international travel. As well as being contingent on income-level, results in the English exam (more so than for other subjects) are related to social access to interactions with foreigners. Students in China’s poorest province, landlocked Guizhou, have much less day-to-day exposure to English language and English-speakers than do students in Beijing, Shanghai and other large cities. The proposed GaoKao changes may reflect that inequality.
For all the promotion of the learning of Chinese to foreigners, it is obvious on the streets in China that young Chinese prefer speaking English to foreigners. Doing so proficiently opens up a whole world of international business and study for them, as it does for young Japanese, Koreans and beyond. It is unlikely that this change will change their motivation to speak it fluently.
While it is impossible to know the inner workings of the MoE’s decision to de-prioritise English in Gaokao, there is probably an underlying calculus comprising: a discrete step to reduce adverse consequences for Gaokao examinees with low income and little access to English practice; and an indirect push toward increasing the relative importance of maths.
As with many policy shifts in China that is, this policy change likely says less about the outside world – the role of English – and more about maintaining stability and increasing prosperity in China.