I learned from one of my students that the authorities in China are planning major changes to the gaokao, the university placement exam. The gaokao currently tests students on Chinese, English, and math. Other components include literature and the sciences. Going forward, English will be de-emphasized and will cease to be a component of the exam by 2017. (Incidentally, the annual exams were held last weekend and 3.9 million students sat for them).
First, a bit more about the gaokao. Students spend their teenage years preparing for this one weekend. Do well and you get into a prestigious university and on the right path in life. Do not-so-well and -- you can end up at a vocational institute, which is where I teach! (smiley face). Some of my students are very bright indeed, but they performed weakly on one of the key components, just as I would have done, if I had had to pass a math exam to get into university. Fortunately for me, I graduated from high school at a time when progressive educators were experimenting with alternative schools and so forth. I didn't have to write any provincial exams and so I never took a provincial exam and never went through "exam hell" like these kids do.
There has been a lot of reaction to and discussion about this change, including a revival of the on-going debate about the effectiveness of China's English instruction methods. Chinese students are taught grammar and vocabulary with little emphasis on actually speaking the language. But why put all students through this and why let a poor score in English drag down their gaokao results, if, in the end, most of them won't need English for their jobs?
Once English is de-emphasized in the gaokao, the students' score in the Chinese component will have a greater weight. This is arguably a sign of cultural confidence on the part of the Chinese. In fact, I am wondering if this move is part of a larger cultural "pushback" against Westernization at the highest levels.
Got more thoughts about that later.