Senior Secondary Mathematics Education in China

Chinese applications and enrollments at American universities and colleges have been skyrocketing over the last five years, and especially so at the undergraduate level. According to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) latest Open Doors report, total undergraduate enrollment of Chinese students surged to 56,976 in 2010-2011 – growth of 42 percent versus the previous academic year.1 Furthermore, 41.3 percent of all Chinese students enrolled in the U.S. higher education system are majoring in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics field (STEM).2 All indications suggest that U.S. institutions of higher education can expect continued strength in applications from China, and especially so at the undergraduate level and in the STEM fields.

Mathematics education has long been highly valued in China. There is a famous Chinese saying that with ‘a mastery of math, physics and chemistry, you will be fearless anywhere in the world,’ and while this may be an old-fashioned idiom for those born in the 1990s, most are still convinced of the significance and importance of academic study in technical fields and the hard sciences. The National Science Foundation reports that in 2008, 43 percent of all Chinese bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the natural sciences and engineering (approximately 1 million total), with bachelor of engineering degrees alone accounting for 30 percent of the total. In the same year, the share in the United States was just 5 percent.3

Chinese senior secondary schools view mathematics education as a key component of secondary education. This is partly because math is a required subject in the National College Entrance Exam (NCEE), or gaokao (高考), the highly competitive national college admissions examination, and also because excellence in mathematics broadens student choices in other STEM majors, which potentially lead to better job prospects.

In this article, we offer an overview of the Chinese secondary mathematics curriculum as an aid to international undergraduate admissions departments evaluating Chinese university applications.

Overview of Senior Secondary Education in China

Senior secondary education in China comprises three years of schooling from Grade 10 to 12, and follows nine years of compulsory primary and junior secondary education. In 2010, senior high schools accommodated 46.8 million students, among which nearly 52 percent were enrolled in general senior high school, 48 percent in vocational senior high schools, and a small fraction in adult senior high schools. While most high schools in China are government funded, 2.3 million and 3.1 million students attended private general high schools and private vocational high schools respectively in 2010.4

A credit accumulation system was recently adopted by general senior schools in all provinces, after experimentation in a handful of provinces beginning in 2004. Students are required to accumulate 144 credits for graduation, including 116 compulsory credits and 28 elective credits.5 In the vocational stream, high schools are currently being encouraged by the Ministry of Education to explore the credit system.

National Mathematics Curriculum: Goals and Objectives

The latest national secondary math curriculum was released in 2003, and is known as the Senior High School Mathematics Curriculum Standard (experiment) 普通高中数学课程标准(实验), or New Curriculum Standard 新课标. It was first introduced experimentally in the provinces of Guangdong, Shandong, Hainan and Ningxia in 2004, and has now been adopted by most general senior high schools across the country.

The overall goal of the New Curriculum Standard is to further build the mathematical aptitude of secondary school graduates from the foundation achieved in the nine years of the compulsory curriculum, and also to meet the needs of individual and social development. It includes six broad objectives that aim to:

  1. Foster basic knowledge and skills by teaching students basic concepts and conclusions, while also introducing the mathematical thinking and methodology to be applied in further study, and exploring the process of discovery and creation through self-study and research.
  2. Enhance spatial imagination, abstraction, reasoning, computing and data processing skills.
  3. Improve the ability to mathematically articulate, analyze and solve (simple practical) problems; promote mathematical expression and communication, and independent knowledge acquisition.
  4. Encourage application and creation, mathematical thinking and judgment to real world models.
  5. Foster interest and confidence in learning mathematics, and cultivate persistence and scientific thinking.
  6. Develop an appreciation of mathematics in its scientific, practical, cultural and aesthetic aspects, foster critical thinking and reasoning, establish a worldview of dialectical and historical materialism.

Curriculum Framework

In light of the objectives, the New Curriculum Standard includes five compulsory modules and four elective courses. Electives 1 and 2 are composed of two and three modules respectively, while Electives 3 and 4 include six and 10 lectures each. The five compulsory modules are designed to develop aptitude in basic math and prepare students for further study, whereas elective classes are offered to motivate interest and achievement in higher math.

Unlike the time-based credit-hour system common to U.S. institutions of education, the credit system used in Chinese secondary education is a module/lecture-based reference for measuring educational achievement.  Students earn two credits (36 class hours) for each module and one credit (18 class hours) for each lecture. Students are required to complete – at a minimum – the 10 compulsory math credits (five modules) in order to graduate.



In addition to compulsory modules, students who follow the humanities and social sciences streams are encouraged to study Elective 1 modules and two lectures from Elective 3 (total 16 credits with compulsory modules). Those who aim to pursue further study in STEM fields – or some economics majors – may consider the combination of Elective 2 and two lectures in Elective 3 plus 2 lectures in Elective 4 (20 credits), or an additional 2 lectures in Elective 4 (total 24 credits) for those truly interested in polishing their math skills.

Textbook Structure

While required to follow the national curriculum, regions and schools have autonomy in textbook choices. In 2005, the Ministry of Education released a list of textbooks for schools and local authorities to choose from.6 Among the six sets of math textbooks, the ones published by the People’s Education Press (PEP), known as Ren Jiao Ban 人教版, are the most commonly used. Each book covers one module or elective lecture. Each module or elective lecture is followed by one to two class hours of summary and a practical assignment for some modules.

The following chart shows PEP’s hour allocation standards and course structure. In the national curriculum, hour allocation is not evenly distributed among modules/lectures. In Compulsory 1, for example, the national curriculum includes four hours for ‘Sets’ and 32 hours for ‘Functions.’ To make the curriculum easier to teach and learn, PEP allocated hours split over three chapters, but still fulfilled the requirement. It should also be noted that the New Curriculum Standard does not specify class hour requirements for Electives 3 and 4, therefore the following overview of the PEP textbook content only reflects part of the Elective 3 & 4 content.7


Mathematics Curriculum for Secondary Vocational Schools

By 2010, 47.8 percent of all Grade 10-12 students were enrolled in secondary vocational schools.8 Admission to various types of vocational secondary schools is now based on the same entrance exams as for general senior secondary schools. The Ministry of Education announced in 20049 that it would implement a credit system in vocational secondary schools, allowing students to organize academic coursework and practical training with more flexibility. General guidelines require that one-third of total class hours be devoted to academic foundation courses, and two-thirds to professional studies. Math education in vocational high school has a strong applied focus. It aims to foster basic knowledge to meet the needs of different career paths.

The current math curriculum is composed of three parts: a foundation module, a professional module and an advanced module. The foundation module requires 128 class hours for all students. The professional module can be customized by schools for different majors, and it requires total study time of 32-64 class hours. The advanced module offers optional courses designed for students interested in taking advanced mathematics. 10


The mathematics coursework in vocational high schools is generally less demanding than that in general high schools. Many students do not have a solid math foundation compared to their counterparts in general high schools. Some provinces and regions provide flexible teaching plans for students with different mathematics proficiencies and career needs. For example, the Shanghai Municipal Education Committee designed four teaching plans of progressive difficulty. Schools may choose one of the four plans for students to earn 4, 8, 12 or 16 credits.11

International Curriculum in Private Secondary Schools

In 2010, private high schools (including general and vocational high schools) enrolled 11.5 percent of all senior secondary students.12 Although these schools have autonomy in teaching and program design, coursework must meet national curriculum standards and textbooks must be approved by the local Department of Education or Education Committee.13

International curricula are gaining popularity among students who plan to seek higher education abroad. Many private high schools are now integrating International Baccalaureate, GCE A-level, and Advanced Placement courses into their general high school curricula. There is no official definition for an international school, but a majority can be categorized as either: 1) privately-funded14 international divisions or programs operated by public schools outside of the general national education programs; 2) private schools that host mostly foreign students.

Students taking international programs or courses are typically hoping to undertake studies in a foreign higher education system. Programs are typically very expensive. Students might take international courses in addition to their regular national curriculum program, or sometimes use credits earned through international courses toward national curriculum standards.

Mathematics Examination & College Admission

The Chinese education system emphasizes exercises and testing. How and whether a subject is tested in the gaokao directly affects classroom teaching. Even though the gaokao format is constantly changing, mathematics stands alongside Chinese and English as one of the “big three.” The Elective series of the New Curriculum Standard can become mandatory if they are required in the gaokao syllabus. Provinces now have autonomy in test design based on the national syllabus meaning that content covered in the gaokao may vary across regions and provinces. For example, in 2008 Hainan Province included compulsory modules and Elective II and IV in the gaokao syllabus for college admission to science, engineering, agriculture and medical programs. In the same year in Shandong Province, Elective II, IV and V were required in addition to compulsory modules15. Requirement for elective modules may also change in different years and differ between humanities and science streams.

The Chinese government encourages vocational high school graduates to continue to higher education after graduation.16 Admission procedures to vocational higher education institutions vary depending on the institution. For some, the gaokao is no longer required and admission is based on written tests and an interview, or a knowledge test and a professional skill tests.17 Integrated standards provide vocational school graduates a new gateway to higher education with less emphasis on academic performance. Teachers have complained that this raises challenges in motivating students in math classes.


In the past 20 years, the Ministry of Education has made secondary curriculum reform a key nationwide initiative and priority, resulting in the release of three new national curriculums for senior secondary mathematics education (1996, 2000, and 2003). The latest reform initiated by the central government strives to create a curriculum that motivates interest and creativity, fosters basic knowledge and applicable skills. This is in contrast to previous curriculums geared almost exclusively to knowledge acquisition. The New Curriculum Standard encourages more flexibility to meet local and individual needs. However, the partial autonomy granted to regional authorities and schools, policy loopholes and on-going changes have caused discrepancies between practice and central curriculum guidelines.

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