Push to reduce the weighting of English in China’s gaokao exam

The weighting of the subject of English in China’s highly competitive national college entrance exam, the gaokao, has re-emerged as an issue at the annual joint sessions of the legislative body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

A proposal from some delegates to downgrade English in the examination sparked heated debate among parents and students on social media, but it has not been reported in official media whether the proposals will be taken forward by the government. Similar proposals were put forward a year ago but were rejected by the Education Ministry in Beijing.

Proposals to downgrade English have surfaced a number of times since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 and the Beijing municipal education authority then announced amid great controversy that it would reduce by a third the weighting of English in the gaokao, where it is a core subject alongside mathematics and Chinese.

Reducing disadvantages

The move was motivated at the time by concerns to reduce disadvantages faced by students from rural areas who do not have easy access to good English teachers. However, it was never implemented.

With the current focus on pressure on students, as well the rural-urban divide, some delegates at the just-ended so called ‘joint sessions’ of the NPC and CPPCC held in Beijing 4-11 March, suggested that English be removed as a core subject, and become an elective in the gaokao.

Some argued that high levels of English made students susceptible to ‘foreign influence’, including through films and social media.

Tuo Qingming, a middle school principal in Yaan, Sichuan province and NPC deputy, suggested lowering the weighting of the English test in the gaokao from 150 points to 100. The total scores for gaokao are 750. He said the English weighting in the gaokao was too high and the subject took up too much time for students to learn, yet it was “not useful” for many people.

“For a considerable number of people, learning a foreign language is only for admission to higher education. What they learn is actually exam-oriented … They will seldom or never use foreign languages in their work or life,” he said on the sidelines of the joint sessions.

Tuo pointed out that in cities, primary schools and even kindergartens had trained foreign language teachers, but many rural schools struggled to hire qualified staff.

“Under the circumstances, the higher the foreign language score in the college entrance examination, the more it works against students in less-developed areas, especially rural areas,” he said.

Chen Weizhi, a member of the National Committee of the CPPCC and president of the Shanghai New Epoch Education Group, a private K-12 school group, was among those suggesting English be removed as a core subject in primary and middle schools to reduce the number of hours of teaching, and that it should not be compulsory for the gaokao.

Parents and students have spent a lot of time, energy and money learning English to get high scores in the middle school entrance exams and gaokao, yet the results have not been satisfactory, and their English proficiency has not improved much, especially their oral English, he said.

The huge burden of extra classes, including in English, was behind a crackdown on private tutoring organisations in China during 2021 aimed at reducing pressure on younger students in particular, and curbing a ‘arms race’ in which parents were spending more and more money on out-of-school tutoring to help their children keep up or gain an advantage.

Secondary and primary schools have also been reducing the number of timetabled English classes in order to level the playing field with rural students who have fewer lessons as part of the curriculum.

Support for English

However, during the joint sessions several delegates backed the teaching of compulsory English in the gaokao, arguing it was important to China’s standing in the world, and to ensuring China’s science and technology prowess remains world-class – English tends to be the global language of science.

President of Sichuan International Studies University Dong Hongchuan, who is also a member of the National Committee of the CPPCC, said proposals to reduce the importance of English should be treated carefully, as strengthening English education was in line with the country’s policy of “high-quality opening-up” and participating in global governance.

Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing think tank, said the reason for scepticism about English education was that exam-oriented teaching has not been effective.

Reducing the weighting of English in exams will not solve problems, he said, adding that universities should have more autonomy to determine the requirement for students enrolling in different programmes. Students can then plan to study the language based on the major, university and career they want to pursue, he said.

The Education Ministry in Beijing said unequivocally last September that the weighting of English in the gaokao would not change – it was responding to a similar proposal during the 2022 session of the NPC to cut the weighting of English in the gaokao.

The ministry said foreign language learning was an important part of students’ overall development and conducive to cultivating students’ language ability, cultural awareness, international mindset and cross-cultural communication ability.

Wu Peng, an English professor at the School of Foreign Languages at Jiangsu University, was quoted by the official China Daily newspaper saying: “While in the past, Chinese people learned English to know about the West, nowadays we learn the language to help the world better understand China.”