Top test scores only part of education equation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 December, 2004, 12:00am

Hong Kong's top results in an international education test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that our students are being well-equipped to understand and solve everyday problems. At a time when talk of school reform is in the air and Hong Kong's teachers come under fire for being resistant, it is important to recognise that some things are being done correctly and to make sure the best of the system is kept even as changes are being made.

The other important element that needs closer examination is the high degree of student alienation revealed by the study. Across the spectrum in Hong Kong, students displayed a low level of confidence in both the education system and themselves. Addressing these attitudes will be necessary if the goal is producing not just functionally literate graduates, but well-rounded, engaged and productive citizens.

The people at the OECD who created the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test recognise that any system relying on rote learning alone would not be able to achieve very high scores. Thus, Hong Kong's showing - at the top of the leagues in mathematics and not too far behind in problem solving and science - should indicate that there is more than just rote teaching happening in our schools.

But there is no argument about how regimented it is in comparison to approaches taken elsewhere. The top-scoring country since Pisa was created is Finland, which has taken the opposite tack from Hong Kong's, doing away with standardised testing and putting an emphasis on social and academic integration.

Most of the reforms now being talked about in Hong Kong are aimed at putting less emphasis on testing and making education more liberal. The gap between results and attitudes shown in the survey indicates that this is definitely the right direction. As part of the Pisa process, students were asked to fill out question- naires. More than half the Hong Kong respondents thought school did little to prepare them for adult life, and more than a tenth thought it had been a waste of their time. If the contemplated reforms make schooling more enjoyable, there should be a rise in students' self-confidence and motivation.

Some of the survey results go straight to the question of school culture, and our principals should make it a point to read them carefully. In contrast to the students' responses, 99 per cent of principals in Hong Kong thought students enjoyed their time at school. Principals hold the key to positive changes at schools, and as the trend towards more autonomy for individual schools picks up, this will be even more true.

Ironically, principals here were very critical of the performance of teachers, while the students were not. The students, while unhappy with the system, were largely satisfied with the support they got from their teachers. Good leadership from principals, with a full understanding of the issues they face, will be important if this perception gap is to be addressed.

As one of Pisa's organisers put it, Hong Kong has a strong academic culture, but now needs to introduce more caring norms. The relentless drilling and early streaming have put Hong Kong at the top of the leagues in terms of these international tests, but we should heed the warning signs that something is missing.

The results show that the system is doing well in teaching some essential skills, and that has to be recognised as a positive thing. Beyond that, however, we should be looking at the accompanying surveys for clues on how the system can be improved.

Having students who can do well in paper-and-pencil tests is one thing. Turning out confident and well-rounded adults is another. Given the competitive challenges Hong Kong faces, it would be a mistake to be satisfied with success in the first area and forget about the second.