Nanjing’s top high school goes back to emphasis on testing after parents protest about low exam scores

Society & Culture

Creativity does not get you into a good university! That seems to be the message from parents of children at the top high school in east China’s city of Nanjing, which recently reversed plans to reduce the emphasis on high test scores.

After years of efforts to reform its test-oriented approach to teaching, a prestigious high school in Nanjing has called off its experimentation with all-rounded education this month, following a demonstration by students’ parents who said that their children fell short in this year’s college entrance exam because of the school’s “ineffective” teaching methods.

At the center of the controversy is Nanjing No. 1 high school, a prestigious institution that accepts only the highest-performing students in the city. About a decade ago, the school decided to gradually move away from the classic Chinese education model, which has long been criticized for putting too much emphasis on highly competitive and rigorous testing. In the years that followed, rather than assigning excessive homework and conducting endless exams, the school encouraged its students to participate in extracurricular activities and explore their interests.

While the reforms were praised by many education officials and experts as innovative and forward-looking, parents voiced their complaints from time to time, accusing the school of not offering enough instruction and guidance to ensure their children’s academic success. The tension reached a fever pitch last month when a crowd of disgruntled parents staged a protest outside of the school, calling for the principal to step down because their children didn’t perform well in the college entrance test or gāokǎo 高考.

Photos and videos circulating online showed them carrying signs and chanting: “Nanjing No.1 high school is no good!”

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According to the protesters (in Chinese), as one of the “Top 4” high schools in the city, Nanjing No. 1 high school only had about 10 students whose gaokao scores were above 400 this year, whereas its biggest rival, the High School Affiliated to Nanjing Normal University, had 120. Meanwhile, Nanjing No. 29 high school, which normally has lower admission standards than Nanjing No. 1 high school, also outperformed it in the national exam. The school’s success, as many parents observed, owed largely to its intense military-style teaching methods, which are reminiscent of Hengshui High School in Hebei.

Much of the anger was directed at Yóu Xiǎopíng 尤小平, the principal of Nanjing No. 1 high school. Since he took charge of the school in 2010, You has been a firm advocate for downplaying the importance of test scores and increasing student choice. However, the benefits that come with this approach, such as creativity and independent thinking, are not visible in the college entrance examination, which is still the primary criteria to judge a Chinese student’s academic achievement.

In response to the backlash, Nanjing No. 1 high school issued a letter (in Chinese) to parents on July 29, saying that it would roll out a string of measures to make its education more test-oriented, including extending compulsory after-school self-studying hours to 10 p.m. and dividing its students into different streams based on their test scores.

The school’s change of policies have received mixed reactions on Chinese social media. People who opposed the reform in the first place agreed with the correction, saying that the school’s failure in the exam proved that its teaching methods were ineffective. “An all-rounded education sounds good on paper, but it comes with a hefty price tag. For parents with limited resources, sending their children to schools that require rigorous studying is still the most reliable way to help them achieve academic success,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Some critics even went as far as saying that the government-led initiative to reduce academic burden on Chinese students was a “selfish scheme” advocated by a string of “interest groups,” including tutoring companies. They argued that by making students learn less at school, these firms are forcing parents to hire private tutors to keep their children competitive in China’s cutthroat education system. “Their goal is to eliminate the poor and drive middle-class Chinese parents into madness,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

Meanwhile, others argued that it’s unfair for the parents to blame the school exclusively on this matter. “You sent your kid to this school. That’s a decision you made. If you were unhappy with its teaching methods, you could have let your kid transfer to another one,” a Douban user wrote.

The dispute at Nanjing No. 1 high school is at its core a proxy fight about which direction Chinese education should go. In the past decade, Chinese education authorities have been reflecting on their fixation with strict discipline and study. In order to make education more focused on creativity and innovation rather than test-taking, China has introduced a set of reforms designed to ease students’ workloads and provide resources catering to their individual needs. But with standardized tests in place, most parents still value scores more than anything else.