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TESTING TIMES

The monstrous gaokao, the national college entrance exam for which students slog for three years of high school, is on this weekend. Nine million 18-year-olds will spend nine hours over Saturday and Sunday, in classrooms under the watch of CCTVs and hi-tech anti-copying devices, while their parents put their lives on hold.

A recent study found that academic pressure, especially the gaokao, is the cause of increasing teenage suicides in China. Gaokao reform has been discussed for years without anything being done, as it is still seen to be the only fair chance for poor and rural students to enter university, because everything depends on the marks they get. Now the government has announced a measure which it feels might lessen the pressure on the students. Chinese, maths and English are the three compulsory subjects in the gaokao. The government proposes to remove English altogether from the exam. Instead, students can take two English tests each year (through secondary school), and the highest score will count for the final gaokao marks. A third agency will conduct these tests. English will now count for 100 marks instead of 150 as it currently does. Marks for Chinese will go up from 150 to 180; the emphasis will be on Chinese classics.

There is overall support for this measure, which is set to come in by 2017. Some parents worry that this might add more pressure because with marks being the only criterion each English test will be like a mini-gaokao. But overall, there is a feeling of vindication that finally, the national language is getting the place it deserves, after having been given the same importance as a foreign language.

Many levels

But will this devaluation of English harm studentsí future? Itís difficult to say. As many students point out, there are any number of good jobs where English is not needed, where you donít need to deal with foreigners at all. But a job in a foreign company is coveted next only to a government job, and there, knowledge of English is a must. However, expats have found that few of the university graduates hired by them can speak or write English well. Most foreign companies run English classes for their employees.

The trouble lies with the way English is taught through school. Much like in India, the emphasis is on grammar and vocabulary, not fluency in the language. Students donít learn to speak it, yet, for the gaokao, they are expected to know 3,500 English words. The difficulty level of the English gaokao paper has stumped English-speaking expats too.

The new proposal has been welcomed by some secondary school English teachers, who say they can now actually spend time teaching English so that their students learn to speak it, instead of teaching it with exams in mind. But others worry that secondary schools may stop teaching the language. This is good news for private English-teaching institutes ó in fact, the business pages of the China Daily have already carried a feature on the opportunities coming up for these institutes. This is bound to put poor and rural students at a further disadvantage.

The reality is that despite English being compulsory all through school, those who want to speak the language learn to do so themselves, as two friends of this diarist did. Neither had studied beyond middle school ó the nine years compulsory for all students. Nor could they afford to join English-teaching institutes. They studied painstakingly through teach-yourself-English books, driven by a desire to be able to communicate with foreigners, and lift themselves out of the low-paying jobs they would otherwise have been trapped in, given their lack of college education. The tragedy is that students appearing for the gaokao have no time to learn English on their own.