Trustworthy exams system the only answer
Students are expected to be honest when taking examinations; severe penalties await those caught cheating. In their turn, authorities responsible for the design and administration of public assessments must act fairly. Our public examination system can only function properly when both sides respect and uphold their ends of this unwritten bargain. The findings of Ombudsman Alan Lai Ning are therefore worrying. He identified serious problems with exam questions in several A-level and Certificate of Education Examination papers from last year. Even more disturbing is his conclusion that the authority is unwilling to admit mistakes and make corrections. It was also faulted for its handling of complaints and taking inadequate measures to rectify problems with the system, beyond dealing with individual mistakes.
The young life of a Hong Kong student is filled with tests and exams. Of these, the most important are the HKCEE and A-Levels. Their results mark a pupil's transition to young adulthood; they also determine his or her chances of entering a university. Every effort must, therefore, be made to make sure those exams are designed to a high quality and that they are administered fairly. Given the large numbers of exam papers and students taking them, some errors are inevitable. But what the Ombudsman finds are systemic problems and an unwillingness to make necessary changes. For example, exam instructions are given ambiguously; eight levels of proof-reading and checking, far from guaranteeing error-free exams, appear to promote complacency among examiners. In one case, a mistake, though spotted, did not enter an errors list, so it could reappear in future.
As the problems were found in three papers in English and physics, which are popular subjects, they were likely to have been taken by many students. The authority says it already has a checking system in place, and members of staff are regularly appraised. But it needs to go beyond dealing with individual errors to create a creditable system the public can fully trust.