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    Back to Basics: How Gaokao Overhaul Sparks a Core Science Revival

    Recent gaokao reform mandates physics and chemistry for most science majors, leading to more students choosing these subjects, but risks reviving old divides between the sciences and humanities.
    May 23, 2024#policy#education

    Sun Junshang’s performance in China’s national college entrance examination, or gaokao, last year suggested that he was highly qualified for his major in geoengineering. However, his experience as a freshman tells a different story.

    Sun struggled with a shaky grasp of chemistry, a foundational subject, during his first year in college. This wasn’t a big surprise, however, as he had not chosen chemistry as an elective subject for the gaokao the previous year.

    “I need to put in extra effort to grasp some basic concepts of chemistry, such as experiment methodologies,” he told Sixth Tone.

    Sun’s experience was common among university students a few years after China implemented the gaokao reform in 2014, which allowed high school students to decide in their first year which three elective subjects to pursue.

    Such flexibility, however, resulted in fewer students opting for physics and chemistry since it was difficult to achieve high scores in these subjects. To address the issue, China’s Ministry of Education rolled out a new policy in 2021 to make both subjects prerequisites for 85 percent of majors under the science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine faculties. Students across the country will sit the gaokao in early June and it will be the first time this reform will take effect.

    The change, while welcomed by local officials and educators, represents new challenges for students.

    A decade of reforms

    The gaokao system has undergone various reforms over the past decade to keep up with the times, with the most notable move in 2014 abolishing the traditional divides between the sciences and the humanities to allow for a more well-rounded education.

    In the past, humanities students studied politics, history, and geography, while those in sciences focused on physics, chemistry, and biology.

    Under the new system, Chinese language, math, and English language are still the three core subjects for the gaokao, while the three remaining electives can be chosen from ideology and politics, history, geography, physics, chemistry, and biology. It was therefore dubbed the 3+3 model.

    The 3+3 model was first piloted in the eastern Zhejiang province and nearby Shanghai in 2014, then in the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, as well as Shandong and Hainan provinces in 2017 before it was rolled out nationwide.

    In order to make the final composite scores for students taking different combinations of elective subjects directly comparable, a new scoring method had to be introduced.

    Despite good intentions, the implementation of the 3+3 model has been difficult.

    The flexibility in subject selection has created a huge imbalance in the number of students learning each subject. Some students and parents strategically avoid subjects that top students are more likely to take to minimize competition. As a result, there was a significant decrease in the number of students taking physics.

    To reverse the trend, some provinces, such as Jiangsu in the east, introduced a new "3+1+2" model, requiring students to take either physics or history before selecting the two remaining elective subjects.

    While this policy encouraged more students to take physics, it failed to popularize chemistry, which also recorded a similar drop in the number of students. Local officials in Jiangsu province had a different idea this time.

    In 2020, the province announced that if less than 25 percent of students took the chemistry exam for the following year, a safeguarding mechanism would be activated, meaning that the top 15 percent would get an A grade by default.

    Today, all of the mainland provincial regions have started or planned to implement the new gaokao reform, adopting either the 3+3 model or the 3+2+1 model.

    Sun, the geoengineering student, chose physics, history, and geography as elective courses back in high school in the eastern province of Shandong. Raised in a relatively relaxed environment, Sun is not particularly studious, according to his mother, Pi Aimei, who provides consulting services for students taking the gaokao.

    But he reads extensively, which makes him adept at history and geography, his strongest subjects. He also opted for physics to hone his scientific reasoning skills.

    Sun’s choices of subjects, a mix of sciences and humanities, aren’t among the most popular combinations and are only possible after the new reform.

    Gaming the system

    The 2021 policy, which makes both physics and chemistry prerequisites for most of the science majors, is the government’s latest effort to address issues in China’s gaokao reform.

    Before that, only 20 to 30 percent of students would take physics or chemistry when the reform was first implemented in provinces like Zhejiang and Jiangsu, according to Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute.

    “Biology and geography became the most popular subjects. Uneven distribution of students for foundational subjects will cause problems when it comes to cultivating science and engineering talent,” he added.

    Parents and students have mixed views on the 2021 policy and concerns about its impacts on college enrollments this year.

    Grace Yang, whose daughter will be taking both physics and chemistry exams this year, said the new requirement limits students’ options in choosing subjects, as many majors that previously required either only physics or chemistry now require both.

    “This is bad news for average students like my daughter who would face fiercer competition,” the Shanghai-based mother told Sixth Tone. “If they want to choose the more popular majors in science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine, the only way to stand out is by studying harder.”

    A student surnamed Mo said the policy has led to a sudden spike in the number of students taking both subjects. “More than 200 out of nearly 300 students in my grade choose both physics and chemistry. I’m surprised by the high percentage,” said the Shanghai student. “The school now faces a staffing problem to provide these courses.”

    “Although I am good at science, I hesitated about whether to pick these subjects because that means I have to compete with high-achieving students,” she added.

    Xiong, of the education research institute, noted the requirement to take both physics and chemistry serves as a countermeasure to the practice of gaming the gaokao system by choosing subjects strategically.

    He explained that even if some students intend to apply for sciences and engineering majors, they could still avoid physics or chemistry by picking other subjects to land a higher score more easily. This would still give them a better chance to enroll in a better university or major.

    “This approach is driven by utilitarian considerations rather than making choices based on their interests,” Xiong added.

    The policy to make physics and chemistry a bundle has also reignited concerns about encouraging the divide between the sciences and the humanities.

    But there’s still flexibility, said the hopeful educator. He explained that the requirement to choose both physics and chemistry only applies to students who want to apply for majors in science, engineering, or agriculture, and students are still free to make combinations.

    Students have traditionally avoided physics or chemistry as they do not want to make their studies harder, said Pi, Sun’s mother.

    “Science and engineering disciplines are essentially about cultivating a fundamental understanding of natural sciences. Fostering this comprehensive ability at a young age is crucial,” she said. “It’s a mindset, a mode of logical and innovative thinking.”

    Editor: Elise Mak

    (Header image: VCG)