The latest outcome of a test for local teachers has again put the issue of English-language proficiency in the spotlight. While the pass rates for reading and listening skills remain relatively high, at 89 and 78 per cent, performance in the written exam leaves a lot to be desired. Only 45.2 per cent of the 1,357 candidates passed the test, though that is better than last year's pass rate of 38.5 per cent. The result for the oral exam is not reassuring either, with a pass rate of 52 per cent, two points up from 2012.
Whether the results should be a cause for concern is open to debate. The alarmist would say the poor performance is evidence of declining English proficiency among the younger generation. It may even be tempting to blame the teachers. If they are proved to be unqualified to teach, students can hardly be expected to speak and write properly.
Teacher groups, however, contend that the results are misleading. The exam is open to teachers and those who want to join the profession. While it is true that only those who pass the exam are qualified to teach, it remains unclear whether the results reflect the standard of serving or of would-be teachers. As the exam has been in place for more than a decade, it can be argued that most serving teachers would have either passed or have been screened out. Those sitting the exam in recent years are probably the ones aspiring to teach. The high percentage of failure shows that the test is an effective tool for keeping the incompetent away from the classroom.
Regrettably, it is difficult to prove which argument is valid without further information. The government is still reluctant to disclose the profile of the candidates in the exam each year, making meaningful analysis difficult, if not impossible. The public is left wondering what to make of the exam results.
Hong Kong's success as a business hub hinges on the ability to enhance its citizens' proficiency in the international language of English. It would be helpful to know if the standards can be maintained. Releasing more details for debate and analysis is essential.