Junior high diploma reform won’t solve education problems
More than one in 10 ninth-graders will leave junior high school without being awarded a diploma this summer as a result of revised graduation regulations. The number is embarrassingly high, but it really tells us something about the education system in this country.
The Education Ministry estimates that of the roughly 280,000 ninth-graders nationwide, 11 to 13 percent, or 300,000 to 350,000 students, cannot graduate this year and will receive only an official certificate of their having studied three years at the junior high school level — something short of a diploma.
Failing to graduate from junior high school is nothing new, but the failure rate has previously been less than 5 percent.
In the past, students had only to obtain a pass in three of the seven fields of study to graduate: languages, math, science, social studies, health and physical education, arts and the humanities, and integrated activities.
The first four were academic subjects that required written exams, whereas the last three did not. The requirements for these seven fields remain unchanged, but now ninthgraders must pass in at least four of them, instead of three.
The change makes a huge difference for those who are not good at academic subjects that require exams. The old design was meant to go easy on these underperforming students: it would be much easier to obtain a pass in health and physical education, arts and the humanities, and integrated activities, none of which require much studying.
But the new rules require students to study harder in at least one of the academic fields.
Such a change is in line with the implementation of the 12-year educational program. In the past, the completion of the nine-year compulsory education program marked the end of basic learning, or for some students, the end of their schooling. Without ninth-grade the diploma, one could not move on to the senior high or vocational school level.
Now that the program has been extended to 12 years (without it being compulsory for any students, though), the end of the ninth grade may simply mean a transition to the last three years of one’s secondary education.
As the Education Ministry explains, students who fail to obtain a junior high school diploma can still continue their studies for the last three years of secondary education.
The ministry says that raising the bar for graduation is meant to encourage students to study and take part in remedial learning programs if they fall behind. It says that it expects the proportion of students failing to graduate will drop gradually in the future.
But the country’s elementary and secondary school principals are worried by the low graduation rates. They say the rates will be exceptionally low in remote areas where educational resources are lacking.
Their worries are understandable. The failure to graduate will be a major frustration for students. For those who really have given up on themselves, the diploma may not mean much; however, for those who still yearn for some kind of “achievement” from their studies despite their poor grades, it should still mean something.
Furthermore, if these students fail to obtain a diploma after finishing senior high school, they will have only an elementary school diploma.
There may be many reasons why students fail, but we have to question whether raising the graduation requirements can really bring much improvement to junior high school education in Taiwan.
Reverting to the previous requirements may also fail to improve the quality of education — except for restoring “pride” for some students and making the graduation figures look less embarrassing.
What we really need to think hard about is why the number of underperforming students can be as high as 13 percent under the new graduation criteria. Is it because of the students themselves? What are the problems with the curriculum, teachers, design of the education program, and distribution of resources?
These are some of the real issues that educators must tackle. The graduation requirements are only part of the assessment needed to help the students of our nation.