On closer examination
The results of the A-Level examination released on Thursday have sparked another round of bashing of the so-called mother-tongue education policy, under which most secondary schools have been compelled to use Chinese to teach Form One to Three classes since 1998.
Media coverage has focused on a drop in the pass rate in the Use of English test. Of 32,164 candidates who took this subject this year, 72.8 per cent scored grade E or above. The figure is 2.3 percentage points lower than last year's 75.1 per cent, when 34,158 candidates sat the test.
As this year's candidates are the first batch of students who completed secondary education under the mother-tongue policy, the perceived fall in English standards has been attributed to students' reduced exposure to the language.
That knee-jerk reaction is deplorable. It reflects the deep-rooted misconception among many Hongkongers that mastering English is more important than receiving an all-round education, and that forcing students to use it to learn other subjects is the best way of developing proficiency.
In fact, yearly fluctuations of pass rates should always be read with caution, and other factors - including changes in the candidature, curriculum and medium of instruction - have to be considered.
Some candidates' unsatisfactory performances at this year's A-Levels is believed to be caused by their schools' decisions to use English to teach classes from Form Four, even though the students had been studying in Chinese before then. The A-Levels can be taken in either English or Chinese.
But the major cause of the drop in overall performance in the A-Levels is believed to be the universities' early admissions scheme. In recent years, in a bid to discourage top students from going overseas, universities have offered to admit those who scored top grades in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education examination taken at the end of Form Five, after they have completed Form Six. Every year, hundreds of students opt to accept those offers instead of staying in school for one more year to take the A-Levels.
Meanwhile, as more and more parents lose faith in the local system, the flow of students overseas has continued.
Lately, a growing number of Form Five graduates has also chosen to skip Form Six and Seven by enrolling in pre-associate degree programmes offered by community colleges run by local universities.
The attraction of these programmes is that they offer students a more stimulating learning environment than schools, and those who do well can go on to enrol in sub-degree and then degree programmes offered by local and foreign universities.
This year, the number of candidates taking the A-Levels was down by as much as 6 per cent from last year. As pre-associate degree programmes become more popular, and more families can afford to send their children overseas as the economy recovers, it is likely that the A-Level candidature will continue to shrink and that scores will fall further.
Things will change only in 2012, when a new diploma of secondary education examination will be introduced to replace both the A-Level and HKCE examinations. By then, students will be spared the chore of taking two public exams within three years, the senior secondary curriculum will have become broader, and the secondary course and first degree programmes will be four and six years long, respectively.
Unfortunately, before these changes are in place, public examination scores will continue to send out confusing signals.
C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy