Selection process scores low marks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am

Teen inventor Chan Yik-hei admitted skipping classes and not turning up for some of the tests for the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination. That was why he scored a mere 12 points and failed both English and Chinese.

Other students with such poor results would have great difficulty getting a place in Form Six. Yet, as he has already been offered a place at the University of Science and Technology, Yik-hei opted to spend time working on new inventions and attending functions organised by his sponsors.

Whether the 16-year-old should have tried his best at an examination, the results of which are irrelevant to his further advancement, is debatable.

For the sake of argument, it would have been nice if he had and even better if he had studied hard, achieved lacklustre results and then gone on to do well at UST. That would have been the best proof of our examination system's failure as a tool for assessing talent.

In a culture that places far too much importance on public examination scores as a means of selection, Yik-hei provides a rare opportunity to prove the limitation of that narrow approach.

Education psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has gained increasing attention in recent years. It holds that people have a broad range of intelligences. While some are word smart, others are number smart, picture smart, body smart, music smart, people smart, self smart and nature smart.

Yet, our schools and culture focus most of their attention on students with good language and mathematical skills but not those who are talented dancers, musicians, and painters. Our HKCEE and the A-Level exam reflect that cultural bias.

To be sure, moves are under way to modify our curriculum and assessment methods to remedy that bias. In recent years, universities have become more liberal in recruiting students.

Every year, several hundred students are admitted on the basis of principals' recommendation. The students concerned do not necessarily shine academically but excel in areas in which their talent cannot be reflected by their performance in public examinations.

It is not known if any research is being conducted on how these students perform in university compared with those admitted according to the conventional approach. Such research should provide insight as to whether and how universities should modify their admissions regimes to recruit more talented young people.

Just as fishermen use different kinds of nets to catch different species, those who lament the allegedly deteriorating quality of our students should ask if they might not have been using the wrong yardsticks to measure performance.