Taiwan has free but voluntary “kindergarten” for 5 year olds, served in both public and subsidized private programs. Enrollment has been climbing steadily since this policy was put in place in 2011 and is currently over 90 percent. Slots in the public kindergartens (about 30 percent of the slots) are prioritized for students with special needs and low-income students.
Compulsory education starts at age 6 and includes six years of primary school and three years of lower secondary school. Upper secondary school is not compulsory, although more than 90 percent of students enroll. There are separate three-year academic and vocational upper secondary schools as well as some comprehensive ones offering both options. Students pay tuition to attend the academic upper secondary schools. In 2014, Taiwan instituted reforms intended to open access to highly competitive academic upper secondary schools. These reforms included broadening admission criteria beyond a single exam and subsidizing tuition for students from low- and middle- income families. In addition to three-year academic and vocational upper secondary schools, there is also a five-year junior college that offers more specialized programs, typically in technical areas.
After upper secondary school, students from both academic and vocational schools can take an entry exam for university, or can take a technical and vocational college entry exam to study at junior colleges, technical colleges or universities of science and technology. In 2017, 96 percent of academic upper secondary school graduates and 79 percent of vocational upper secondary school graduates continued to an institution of higher education. About 75 percent of upper secondary vocational school graduates opt for junior colleges, technical colleges, or universities of science and technology to continue their vocational studies. Five percent go to university and 15 percent start working after graduation.
Standards and Curriculum
When compulsory education began in Taiwan in 1968, curriculum was highly centralized and teaching was tightly scripted. Once Taiwan began to democratize politically in the mid-1980s, the central government eased control over schools. In 2000, Taiwan decentralized its school curriculum and textbooks. Since then, the Ministry of Education has set national curriculum guidelines in key subject domains, known as Learning Areas, for primary and lower secondary schools. The seven Learning Areas are: Science and Technology; Mathematics; Language Arts; Social Studies; Arts and Humanities; Health and Physical Education; and Integrative Activities (i.e., activities that encourage reflection on the learning process and real-world applications).
Within each domain is a set of required subjects. Primary school subjects include: science; mathematics; mandarin, English and local dialects; social studies; physical education; music and visual/performing arts; and integrative activities. lower secondary school subjects include: biology, chemistry, physics, earth science and technology; mathematics; Chinese literature and English; civics, history and geography; physical education; music and visual/performing arts; and home economics and scouting.
Some primary and lower secondary schools teach integrated subjects within the Learning Areas at each grade level, and others teach the traditional subjects. The curriculum also includes “alternative learning periods,” which are used flexibly by schools to offer electives or remediation. Individual schools and teachers develop curriculum and choose texts to use. Many schools have established collaborative Committees of School Curriculum Development, consisting of teachers, parents, principals, administrators, pedagogical experts and other community stakeholders, to develop curriculum according to the national guidelines. Teachers use the Committees’ curriculum frameworks to develop their own lesson plans and formative assessments.
For academic upper secondary school, there is a common curriculum for all students in the first two years. Students choose a specialization — either humanities/social sciences or engineering/natural sciences — in their third year. Common subjects include: Mandarin, mathematics, English, second foreign language, citizens and society, history, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, physical education, health care, music, fine arts, art and life, home economics, career planning, integrative activities, life education, living technology, information technology, and national defense education.
Vocational upper secondary schools offer programs in six broad industry areas: agriculture, industry, business, marine products, home economics, and art. A typical vocational program includes 40 percent general education subjects, 40 percent technical and vocational subjects related to the area of specialization, and 20 percent electives. One core feature of all vocational programs is “learning by doing,” with practical projects designed to help students gain real-life experiences. All vocational schools offer students the opportunity to spend part of their school time in practicums in industries through “cooperative education” and “practical skills courses.”
Although Taiwan is a top performer on PISA math and science, its performance on reading has lagged consistently. In response to their disappointing performance on the 2006 PISA reading assessment, the Ministry introduced a nationwide reading program in 2009 aimed at changing how reading was taught and encouraging students to read more. Reading had typically been taught by emphasizing the acquisition of decoding skills with little focus on student engagement and critical thinking. The new program trained teachers to teach comprehension and critical thinking skills alongside decoding. About US$86.6 million was invested from 2009 to 2016. Taiwan Ministry officials credit the initiative with improving the quality of school libraries and increasing the quantity and quality of books children read. Educators also report much greater participation in reading at home and at school. While performance on the PISA reading test has not improved, Taiwan has steadily improved in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which tests fourth graders on reading. Taiwan moved from 22nd in 2006 to ninth in 2011, and eighth place in 2016.
Taiwan announced a curriculum reform for grades 1 through 12 that will phase in starting in the fall of 2018. This new curriculum will introduce Nine Core Competencies, aimed at encouraging students to innovate, problem-solve, and think more broadly about the world. These Core Competencies are an update to the Fundamental Competencies in the existing curriculum. The Core Competences include skills such as “systematic thinking and problem solving” and “interpersonal relations and teamwork” and cut across Learning Areas, subjects, and grade levels. They differ from the Fundamental Competencies in that they span all 12 years of primary and secondary education and are more focused on preparing students for the “complex life situations” in the new economy era. The new curriculum will also expand the number of electives in upper secondary school to about one-third of all courses and emphasize differentiated, student-centered instruction.
Assessment and Qualifications
There are no required national assessments in primary school. Students are awarded the primary school diploma at the end of their six years in primary school based on teacher and school assessments.
The first national assessment students take is administered in the final year of lower secondary school (grade 9) when all students participate in the Comprehensive Assessment Program (CAP). This exam has been in place since 2014, when it replaced the Basic Competence Test (BCT). The BCT functioned primarily as an entrance exam to upper secondary school, and only about 60 percent of students passed this exam and were able to continue their education. The CAP exam was introduced as part of an effort to open access to upper secondary school for more students. It differs from the BCT in that it is a test of mastery of the lower secondary curriculum rather than a competitive entrance exam for upper secondary school. All students take the CAP now, no matter whether they intend to go on to academic or vocational upper secondary school.
The CAP is a multiple-choice exam, with a supplementary exam for composition. It tests mastery in Chinese, English (including a listening exam), mathematics, social studies, and the natural sciences. Throughout lower secondary school, students take three “pacing tests” to prepare them for the CAP. The CAP is one of multiple criteria considered when students apply to either vocational or academic upper secondary schools.
Admission to academic upper secondary schools (grades 10-12) and five-year junior colleges (grades 10-14) is competitive, with students vying for spots in the most prominent schools. The strongest students tend to enroll in public schools, while students with lower grades tend to enroll in private schools. Each school district must admit at least three-quarters of students through “open admissions,” meaning that all applicants to a school are admitted if there are enough spaces. If there are more applicants than spaces, admission is based on CAP scores and additional factors like academic performance or extracurricular activities. Students who successfully graduate from academic upper secondary schools are awarded a Leaving Certificate (diploma). They do not need to pass an exam to graduate but if they want to apply to university, they must take the General Scholastic Ability Test (GSAT). Universities have expanded their admission criteria over the last two decades and most now use interviews, teacher recommendations or subject tests, in addition to the results of the GSAT.
Vocational upper secondary schools have more flexibility in admissions in order to attract students with the appropriate skills, so requirements vary by school and may include a practical examination. Vocational students graduate with a Vocational School Certificate of Graduation (diploma). Those who want to continue their vocational studies take the Technological and Vocational Education Joint College Entrance Examination. If they want to pursue academic studies at university, they take the GSAT, but only about 5 percent of vocational school graduates pursue this route. About 75 percent of graduates opt for junior colleges, technical colleges or universities of science and technology to continue their vocational studies. The remaining 15 percent start working after graduation.
The Structure of Taiwan’s Education System