Fri, Jul 06, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Exams should be made for students

Taiwan's national college entrance examination this week was embroiled in controversy over accusations that the questions showed "China bias." In the Chinese-language section, classical Chinese questions comprised 74 percent of the score. Forty-two percent of the history section was Chinese history, 40 percent was world history and a mere 18 percent covered Taiwanese history. There were even claims that the China-oriented theme permeated into the math and engineering tests.

While it's commendable that students are expected to have a broad view of world history, weighting Chinese history equally against the rest of world history while marginalizing the Taiwanese history section is obviously unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, the issue has become political. There have been accusations that the emphasis on classical Chinese and Chinese history was meant as a slap in the face to pro-localization Minister of Education Tu Cheng-sheng (杜正勝). Considering the furor over Tu's support for a four-character idiom about the story of the Three Little Pigs being included as a classical idiom in the ministry's online dictionary, this would not be beyond the pale. But the political debate shouldn't obscure the more practical problems with the exam, along with the examination system itself, that the controversy has obscured.

Take classical Chinese, for example. The problem with teaching it is not so much that it is Chinese, but that the ability to understand arcane texts and grammar is not a suitable standard for selecting the best and brightest among Taiwan's future leaders. Classical Chinese has a rich tradition that deserves to be studied. However, it serves little purpose as a broad standard to test students' modern language ability.

The College Entrance Examination Center's reasons for choosing the test materials are beside the point. The bigger problem is that the emphasis in the exam is at odds with the trends in Taiwanese education. The ministry has worked to promote a more Taiwan-centric curriculum for students, with greater emphasis on Taiwanese history and modern Chinese language.

Not only is it unfair that students should have to show up for one of the most important exams of their lives and learn that they've been concentrating on the wrong material, but it also allows the center to have inordinate influence over the education system. Test creators should tailor their exams to what is being taught in class. However, as the exercises its power as an independent organization to choose whatever questions it likes, that relationship is reversed.

Students will naturally demand to be taught whatever materials will help them get into the best colleges, and their teachers will oblige. The ministry can pass whatever education policies it wants, but students will study what is going to be in the exam.

Tu said on Tuesday that as much as the ministry would like to shape the tests, it cannot interfere with what the center decides. As long as this arrangement continues, the center will be the tail wagging the dog.

Normally in government, separation of powers is a good thing. But in the case of education -- especially Taiwan's heavily exam-based system -- it's best not to have educators and testers pulling in opposite directions. If the center tries to act as a "check" on the ministry, it will only lead to more needless confusion among students. The ministry needs to have increased influence over the examination materials to ensure that education and examinations are in tune with each other.

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