Curriculum Reform in Chinese Secondary Education

The theoretical foundation for the current educational system in China may be traced to the “Decision on the Reform of the Educational Structure”, a decree issued in 1985 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which was formalized a year later by the National People’s Congress with the ratification of the “Compulsory Education Law.” The new law would serve as the basis for reform at all levels within China’s system of education, while underscoring the leadership’s commitment to basic education both as a legal and a moral imperative in congruence with the ideologies embodied by Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations, a set of reforms aimed at strengthening the areas of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. At the core of these reforms was the belief that in order to prepare the country for the 21st century, it was necessary to develop all sectors of education, the most vital of which included elementary and secondary education.

In line with its commitment to universalize basic education for the rural poor, including ethnic minorities, the Chinese government granted municipal- and provincial-level governments with the administrative power to organize and regulate public education on the basis of local needs and conditions. In other words, while the Ministry of Education remains the central authority in formulating guidelines and policies, as well as establishing the national curriculum, local and provincial education departments have assumed greater jurisdiction over the development of provincial curricula and course materials. The result is an increasingly diversified curricula that reflects the integration of local and national agendas, whereby courses are both predetermined by the state and developed by provincial-level education departments to incorporate the needs and priorities of individual schools and districts.

Structure and Enrollments

One of the policy changes advanced by the “Education Law” has been the establishment of a 12-year schooling structure (6+3+3). The nine-year compulsory education component is comprised of primary school (five or six years) and junior secondary school (typically three years). General academic senior secondary education is three years in length.

Under the new education structure, and especially in the last decade, there has been a significant upsurge in overall enrollment rates at both elementary and secondary levels that will likely continue in the coming years as access to education expands to larger segments of Chinese society, particularly in rural areas. While the emphasis has been on the implementation of nine years of compulsory education in rural, underdeveloped areas, the education policy for large cities and more developed coastal areas has ostensibly focused on the universalization of senior secondary education.

According to official Ministry of Education figures, there were over 103 million students enrolled in primary schools in 2008, while the total enrollment for students in junior secondary schools (including vocational schools) totaled over 55 million. The number of students enrolled in general academic senior secondary schools reached more than 16 million in 2002, and by 2008, that total increased to just over 24 million.

The school year for primary and junior secondary school is divided into two semesters, beginning in early September and ending by July. The actual end of the school year and beginning of the summer holiday is set in accordance with the Chinese Spring Festival, with the spring semester beginning ten days after that date. Total weeks of class instruction for the first two years is 26, extending to 30 weeks for years 3-6, and 34 weeks for years 7-9. A school week constitutes five days or 35 hours.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Morality & Life Morality & Life Morality & Life Morality and Society Morality and Society Morality and Society Morality and Ideology Morality and Ideology Morality and Ideology 7-9%
History and Society (or choice of history, geography) 3-4%
Science Science Science Science Science (or choice of
biology, physics, chemistry)
Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese 20-22%
Math Math Math Math Math Math Math Math Math 13-15%
Foreign lang. Foreign lang. Foreign lang. Foreign lang. Foreign lang. Foreign lang. Foreign lang. 6-8%
P.E. P.E. P.E. P.E. P.E. P.E. P.E. & Health P.E. & Health P.E. & Health 10-11%
Art (or choice of music, fine arts) 9-11%
Synthesis Practice 16-20%
Place and school course
26 26 30 30 30 30 34 34 34 274
910 910 1050 1050 1050 1050 1190 1190 1190 9522

Figure 1: Length of program for primary and junior secondary education (Ministry of Education, 2007)

Compulsory Curriculum

The current curriculum scheme for primary and junior secondary education was introduced and implemented in 1993, under the “Teaching Scheme (Curriculum) for Full-time Primary and Secondary Schools (Pilot)” program. The subjects and courses are comprised of compulsory subjects based on the national curriculum as well as subjects developed by provincial-level education bodies and implemented by individual schools on the basis of local needs and priorities.

The prescribed curriculum for six years of elementary education includes nine compulsory courses (mathematics, science, social studies, political education, Chinese language, physical education, music, fine arts, and labor skills), with a foreign language as an elective. Graduation requirements include passing exams in Chinese and mathematics, along with meeting physical education standards. In junior secondary school, the prescribed curriculum includes 13 compulsory courses. Humanities courses are comprised of history, political science and geography, while Science courses include physics, chemistry and biology.

At the completion of the junior secondary curriculum students must pass the High School Entrance Examination (Zhongkao), in order to gain access to senior secondary school. The Zhongkao assesses six subject areas: Chinese, mathematics, a foreign language, political education, physics, and chemistry. These exams are created by provincial education departments but must still follow the guidelines established by the Ministry of Education. In addition, students must meet the physical education requirements needed for graduation.

New Senior Secondary Curriculum

Introduced in 2004, the new senior secondary curriculum marks the latest evolution from a strict year-based system to a credit-based system. The length of program for senior secondary education is now comprised of 40 weeks of classroom instruction, one week of public service, and 11 weeks of vacation (including winter and summer vacation, and national holidays). Each semester is divided into two 10-week sections (nine weeks for class, one week for review and final exams). Students typically take compulsory courses in the first year, and a combination of compulsory and elective courses in the second and third year. The second semester of the third year is often reserved for review and final exams, although there may be slight variations from school to school in the structuring of courses in the third year.

Academic Year

1st and 2nd Year 3 rd Year
1st semester 2nd semester
Classroom Instruction 36 weeks 18 weeks
Social Practice 1 1
Final Review and Exam 4 2 20
Vacation 11* 11*
Total 52 weeks 52 weeks

*(includes winter and summer holidays, and national holidays)
Figure 2: Length of program for senior secondary education (Ministry of Education, 2007)

Under the new scheme, there are eight subject areas, and students must complete a minimum number of credits in each area. In order to graduate, students must have earned at least 144 credits (116 credits in compulsory subjects, 22 credits for courses in the national elective curriculum—typically electives in the major area of study—and at least six credits must be in school-specific electives). The structuring of courses under the new scheme, on the whole, encourages greater flexibility on the part of individual schools and their students, so long as the minimum credit requirement is met.

Senior Middle School Curriculum (2004)

Subject Compulsory Credits
(116 credits total)
Electives I Electives II
Language and Literature Chinese 10 22
Additional course modules based on national elective curriculum
> 6
Optional school modules for students based on local needs and individual interests
Foreign language 10
Math Math 10
Culture & Society Ideology and Politics 8
History 6
Geography 6
Science Physics 6
Chemistry 6
Biology 6
Technology Technology (Information Technology and General Technology) 8
Arts Arts (Music, Fine Art) 6
Physical Education and Health PE and Health 11
Comprehensive Practice Research-based Study 15
Community Service 2
Social Practice 6
Total Credits 144 (minimum)
180 (maximum)

Figure 3: Credit-based curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2004)

Physical education and health courses as well as courses in the arts receive one credit each, or 18 hours. Technology courses are assigned a total of eight credits, while information technology and general technology are assigned four credits each. In addition to compulsory subjects, students in senior secondary school must also undertake a research-based study for a total of 15 credits over the span of three years. This is considered an independent study course, where students are required to complete a research paper that addresses a social, economic or technological issue of interest. Students are also expected to complete a two-credit work practicum, which typically involves spending one week per academic year outside of school to gain practical work experience. Community service is another key component under the new curriculum. For two credits, students must spend at least 10 days participating in volunteer work.

Methods of Assessment

At the end of each compulsory curriculum requirement in senior secondary school, students may sit for either a school-based exam or a provincial-level exam. Provincial education departments determine which exam to administer, but it is generally up to individual schools and students to decide the actual exam date. Provincial exams are given twice a year, typically three weeks before the end of the semester.

There are currently two types of provincial assessments— the Joint Graduation Exam (Huikao) and the High School Academic Proficiency Test (Xuéyè shuǐpíng cèshì). Based on the national syllabi for senior secondary schools, developed by the Ministry of Education, the Huikao is a series of subject exams created and administered by the provincial-level education department. The Huikao consists of 10 subject exams that are typically taken at the end of each subject curriculum.

With the transition from a year-based system to a credit-based system, the Ministry of Education has announced its plans to phase out the Huikao entirely by 2010. The alternate assessment is the Academic Proficiency Test (APT), which has been experimented with in select provinces for as many as five years, but was introduced nationally in 2007. The objective of the Academic Proficiency Test is to test students’ competence in both major and non-major subjects. In other words, Humanities students would take examinations in chemistry, biology and physics, while Science Stream students would take examinations in history, political science and geography. Both Science and Humanities streaming students would still have to take exams in Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language, but mathematics papers, for example, are designed to be more rigorous for Science streaming students.

The Academic Proficiency Test is currently available in three general formats:

  1. Chinese, math, a foreign language + 3 non-major subjects (6 exams)
  2. Chinese, math, a foreign language + 2 exams [Comprehensive science & Comprehensive humanities] (5 exams)
  3. Chinese, math, a foreign language + 3 humanities subject exams + 3 science subject exams (Huikao format)
Joint Graduation Exam (Huikao) High School Academic Proficiency Test (Xuéyè shuǐpíng cèshì)
Introduced in 1990 and implemented in 1993; phased out by 2010 Experimented in Guangdong, Shandong, and Jiangsu in 2005, introduced nationally in 2007
Compulsory provincial exams Implemented in 18 provinces
Ten major subject areas Three formats, testing both major and non-major subject areas
Students sit for the exam at the end of each subject curriculum Students sit for the exam at the end of each subject curriculum
Grants access to sit for the College Entrance Exam (Gaokao) Exam results may affect eligibility for 4-year post-secondary study, but prerequisites vary from province to province

Figure 4: Comparison of the Joint Graduation Exam (Huikao) and the High School Academic Proficiency Test (Xuéyè shuǐpíng cèshì)


Secondary education in China remains centralized with regards to curricula guidelines and major policy decisions; however, recent legal reforms have allowed secondary institutions to transition from a year-based system to a credit-based system, a measure that has allowed for greater regional autonomy in implementing education standards. As a result, regional and provincial differences in curriculum content and standards, as well as measures of academic performance, may become more significant in the years to come.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2010 issue of WENR.

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Posted in Asia Pacific, Education Policy, Education System Profiles