High school seniors  preparing for college entrance examinations in China.  (TopPhoto via AP Images)
High school seniors  preparing for college entrance examinations in China. (TopPhoto via AP Images)

No Chinese student can hope to attend a decent Chinese university without the ability to test well in the English language, if not necessarily speak well. The distinction both frustrates and inspires Chinese educational reformers. They've long pushed to do away with the country's exam-oriented education system, especially the notorious national college entrance exam, or gaokao. But despite occasional, highly incremental changes meant to dissuade China’s teachers from teaching to the test, English education -- and education in general in China -- remains nearly as regimented today as it was in the 1980s.

That helps explain why news that China’s national education authorities plan to drop English from the gaokao in 2017 set off a brief but intense debate last weekend over whether and how Chinese should be learning English in the first place. Much of the discussion was overheated and went well beyond the bounds of what the reform package entails. (English will still be taught and tested in Chinese schools.) Yet the tone itself revealed a Chinese public eager to move beyond a test-driven education system that encourages rote learning, to one that rewards actual mastery of a subject. “Reducing the role of English in the gaokao doesn’t deny the importance of English,” wrote Yuan Guangko in the Changsha Evening News. “It just means that we have serious issues with the traditional teaching method that need to be rectified.” The problem, he later explained, is simple: “English is learnt only for the purpose of taking an exam and only a very few Chinese master it.”

The Chinese passion for rote learning and exam-oriented education dates back to imperial times, and was resuscitated in the late 1970s to help Chinese reformers cull -- fairly -- the large number of applicants for a limited number of spots in Chinese universities. Thus, the gaokao was born, and in 1984 it acquired an English section. The reason was simple: China was reforming and emerging, and English was and is the dominant global language of culture and business.

Indeed, were it not included in the gaokao, English would still be a popular and necessary topic of study for Chinese with anxiety about their -- and China’s -- ability to integrate into the global middle class. That point was reiterated repeatedly over the last several days’ debate. “This is the most foolish decision I can imagine,” wrote a Denmark-based Sina Weibo microblogger on Sunday. “English is a universally-used language. No matter for personal development or national progress, our current form of English education should be strengthened rather than weakened.”

The challenge for China’s educators has been balancing the understandable desire to ace a one-time exam that can transform an entire family’s fortunes, and the likelihood of the language being used in real life. For now, at least, the balance tilts to the former, resulting in a plague of so-called “dumb English,” whereby grammar is mastered on paper but is unable to be used properly. Like so many problems in China this one is often taken to symbolize broader issues with Chinese educational institutions that can produce internationally-renowned test-takers (the best in the world, by some measures), but have yet to turn out a Chinese Steve Jobs. Reducing the role of English on the gaokao won’t soon change those facts.

A widely-read commentary by Xiong Binqi, a renowned education reformer, made that point in Tuesday’s edition of the state-owned Guangzhou Daily. He notes that the real problem with China’s education system isn’t any particular subject or teaching method, but rather a centralized college admission system that evaluates students largely on the basis of their gaokao scores. “Many people feel that reforming the centralized admission system is impossible due to our national conditions,” he writes, referring to China’s large population, and relatively small number of slots at its universities. “So they put the focus on reforming certain subjects even though the public should be working to reform admissions.”

Until that much more difficult reform is undertaken, China may remain home to some of the world’s most accomplished and tested English-language grammarians. Unfortunately, few will have the ability, much less the incentive, to speak.

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net