The controversy over the tri-city high school entrance exam held in May has turned the major education policy of Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) administration into a firestorm for the mayor, who has acknowledged facing unexpected challenges in handling complaints about it and apologized for an admissions snafu.
The exam, which was used in Taipei City, New Taipei City (新北市) and Keelung for the first time in May, is part of the “single-version textbook” policy Hau introduced in 2008. The policy has caused disputes from the very beginning because it contradicted the Ministry of Education’s multiple textbook policy aimed at promoting diverse learning.
Hau and then-head of the city’s education department, Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) — now the minister of education — opposed the then-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government’s education policy, insisting the tri-city plan would reduce the pressure on students by standardizing textbooks and drawing exam questions exclusively from the textbook.
However, the exam triggered a massive backlash from students and parents who slammed Hau’s government for offering inaccurate admission reference scores. Many students said they failed to get into their target schools because they miscalculated the admission thresholds. Without previous exams and average scores to use as references, May’s test takers were little more than lab rats. As Hau and his team struggled to end the debacle, including an abrupt about-face to open up 2,200 places, the rights of tens of thousands of students have been sacrificed and educational resources wasted.
Providing more admissions places simply added fuel to the fire because students and parents were forced to go through the application process all over again. Facing calls to suspend the exam next year, Hau has continued to defend the tri-city textbook and exam policy, saying that not offering the exam would be irresponsible and hurt the eighth and ninth-graders now using the textbooks.
However, a closer look at the exam showed similarities with the national high school entrance exam in terms of the exam database, questions and average scores. Critics and test takers also challenged city officials’ promise to make the exam easier, arguing that the questions were more difficult than expected.
The tri-city policy was an expensive experiment even before the May exam disaster. The Taipei City Teachers’ Association showed that the number of junior high-school students taking cram school classes has increased in the three years since the tri-city policy was introduced. The budget for compiling questions for May’s exam was more than NT$45 million (US$1.5 million).
The mayor has apologized over the admission process and described the incident as the biggest political storm in his career, but the storm looks set to grow after the Ministry of Education said last week that it would take public opinion into consideration when reviewing the feasibility of the exam next year, while the Control Yuan began a probe into possible administrative negligence.
It is time for Hau and Taipei City education officials to face the issue professionally instead of making it personal. Only by admitting they erred, suspending next year’s exam and dropping the policy will give Hau and his team a chance to quell the political storm.
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