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How Should Gaokao Essay Topics Be Selected?
The diversification of Gaokao essay topics becomes a trend
 NO. 26 JUNE 29, 2017

(LI SHIGONG)

As always, the essay topics in the Chinese language test in this year's national college entrance examination soon became a hot topic for discussion after the two-day exam, commonly known as gaokao, finished in early June. This time, however, debates have been more heated than in the past, largely because this year marks the 40th anniversary of the examination's resumption after its suspension from 1966-76.

Essay writing is seen as a prime method to test students' language proficiency in gaokao. For many years, students were required to write an essay on a given topic. This method was widely criticized as preventing students from expressing themselves freely or fully, as any given topic may be familiar to some but not to others. In a recent development, some test papers have provided an alternative means by which students can create their essays. For example, a paper designed by the Ministry of Education for this year's exam listed a number of China-related keywords, any three of which students could select as subject material for their article. This reform has won acclaim as a major step toward allowing more room for creativity in essay writing.

Nonetheless, some complain that the choice of essay topics is not completely fair, particularly for students who come from underdeveloped rural areas. Reading materials or buzzwords that students living in large cities easily comprehend may be difficult for rural students. While the restrictions on what to write have been relaxed, fairness in the selection of essay topics remains important. Complaints, opinions and suggestions about gaokao essay topics have come from various quarters.

A step forward

Xiong Bingqi (Science and Technology Daily): For years, I have been suggesting that more than one topic should be offered for the gaokao essay, so that students can choose what they are most interested in. This year, in the short essay section, students in Beijing had the choice of three topics.

Also, this year, a test paper designed by the Ministry of Education presented several China-related keywords—such as the Belt and Road Initiative, panda, bicycle sharing, Peking Opera, air pollution, beautiful countryside, food safety, high-speed railway, mobile payment—and students were required to choose three of them and write an essay that would help foreigners better understand China.

The reform on gaokao essays should follow this trend. Students need to be offered more choices so that they will think more extensively and express themselves more freely. Meanwhile, students should also change their minds. They should not focus too much on exam-oriented writing skill training, but should express their true feelings in their essays.

More importantly, for students to feel really free in writing gaokao essays, it's also important to adopt diversified standards for assessment.

Editorial (Beijing Youth Daily): The essay part of the Chinese language paper can best reflect students' grasp of the language and culture. This year, students in many provinces were required to write an article after reading the material offered.

The purpose of offering reading materials is partly to encourage students to analyze and extract available information. In this way, they enjoy more freedom in writing the essay.

In addition, the test papers adopted by different provinces mostly offered more than one essay topic.

For years, it has been suggested that students should be given three to four topic choices for gaokao essays. On the basis of this year's examination, it seems that the education authorities have at long last heeded this call.

A striking feature of this year's gaokao essay is that the topics are quite closely related to social hot events, such as the 40th anniversary of the resumption of gaokao. Some people applaud this for its connection to real life, which is absolutely great. In my opinion, though, topics need not be so relevant to current affairs, as long as they offer enough space for students to think, analyze and write.

Forty years after gaokao was resumed, reform of this system is on the agenda. The gaokao system is expected to help students' healthy growth and encourage the development of their interest in many things. When they are faced with more and more choices, either in terms of essay topics or test scheduling—in Zhejiang Province, for example, students can take the English language test twice—students' individual potential will be further brought into play.

Luo Ke (www.sohu.com): We don't know how the gaokao essay topics are selected, but we hope students will be given more freedom in how to write the essay. Students rarely get a very low score for their gaokao essays, but full marks are also rarely given, which means the topic must be one that everyone feels they have something to say about. This is an appropriate choice.

Meanwhile, if the gaokao essay topics can focus more on hot issues and public affairs, they can serve to some degree as a guiding principle for school education.

It is conceivable that students will pay more attention to public affairs given that the gaokao essay topics incorporate more of such things. In this case, teachers and parents will guide students to think about, analyze and debate public affairs in an objective and rational manner. Students will, in turn, become more interested in social life, instead of submerging themselves in books. Gradually, they'll develop the ability to analyze social issues by themselves. This is undoubtedly a good way of citizenship education.

If students begin to analyze public affairs objectively in middle school and learn to offer solutions instead of complaining, then they will play a more constructive role in the nation's development. This is our expectation of gaokao essays.

Problems remain

Zhang Tianpan (The Economic Observer): This year, the essay task set in a test paper designed by the Ministry of Education provided keywords, three of which students were required to choose for the basis of their articles.

But in such keywords, we detect unfairness to students from rural areas. For those who come from remote and impoverished rural areas, or even from small towns, most of these words are unfamiliar. Particularly, concepts such as bicycle sharing and mobile payment are things those who do not have smartphones have never experienced. Besides, high-speed railway and food safety are also part of the concerns of residents in big cities. The only one that rural students understand well may be "beautiful countryside."

This is not a fresh problem. Complaints have been made for years about the hidden unfairness to rural students in the gaokao essay topics, but little improvement has occurred. For example, the 2016 gaokao essay topic in Zhejiang Province was about "virtual reality (VR) and reality." What an unfair topic! Even economically developed Zhejiang has deprived areas in its south and west. For students from rural areas and small towns in these parts, this is a strange and unfair topic. Many of them would have no idea what to write.

As far as gaokao essay topics are concerned, they should refrain from providing background materials and topics that bewilder rural students. To maximize fairness, they should adopt materials that every student has some knowledge of, instead of focusing on topics familiar only to urban students.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com 

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