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Time to revisit the exam system
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It is high time we took a new look at the country's examination system, especially the national college entrance examination system. Leaving things as they are now could derail efforts to upgrade the country's education system.

Despite the many attempts at reform that have been made in the past century, the present examination system is not much different from the imperial examination system - the system through which officials and students for higher education were enrolled.

Though the system ensured a certain degree of fairness, its defects, such as suffocating creativity, generated much criticism. When Mao Zedong started the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), one of his priorities was to suspend the system, which, he thought, blocked the offspring of the poor from getting an education.

A new college enrollment system was adopted based on candidates' performance at work and political background.

When Deng Xiaoping took the helm at the end of the "cultural revolution", he realized that the country would be hopeless without quality education. He decided to give academically smart students a chance by reinstating the college entrance examination in the latter part of 1977. Records show that 5 million exam-takers ranging in age from more than 40 to 13 sat the examination that year, and more than 270,000 were successfully enrolled. That created the foundation for the current national college enrollment system. This year, more than 10 million youngsters took the exam, which led to the recruitment of 5.67 million university freshmen.

But the system's defects have lingered. In a populous country such as China, education resources always seem to fall short. To most students and parents, passing the college entrance examination is the only way to secure a bright future. Since the examination is so competitive and considered such a crucial step, parents start preparing their children from the cradle.

It is not unusual for a Chinese child to study seven days a week, 10 to 15 hours a day, in the hope of passing exams for kindergarten, primary school, high school and, eventually, university.

The problem is that the exams are designed not to test children's basic skills, fundamental knowledge or creativity, but their ability to recite long passages from memory or deal with confusing questions. Students have complained that about 80 percent of what they learn will be of little use when they grow up.

Apart from their homework, which is already much more than what their counterparts in other countries get, students are also compelled by their parents to attend numerous lectures on different subjects.

To bring up a healthy generation, we should seriously reexamine our examination system. We should relieve our children of their heavy academic burdens and encourage them to be active, imaginative and creative.

The culprit, it seems, is not the exam itself, but the contents of the exam. The exams should not encourage mechanical, rote memorization, but creativity.

As one of the lucky dogs of the 1977 national college entrance exam and one who has been exposed to Western education, I would suggest that most of the present fortune-deciding examinations be overhauled. The curriculum and textbooks are already mostly standardized in this country, so why can't we judge a graduate's quality according to his or her performance in class or other areas?

If some people are still skeptical about the reliability of students' records, interviews can be arranged - seeing is believing.

(China Daily November 2, 2007)

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