Exam success won't prepare you for the bigger test of life

Kelly Yang says if exam results become our sole focus, we'll lose sight of the wider measure of success and education's true purpose

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 2:34am

The fact that our students ranked in the top three worldwide for maths, reading and science in last week's Pisa results only confirms what I've observed - Hong Kong students test well, as they should, because they are tested all the time.

Most of our schools have turned into testing centres. My students in local schools sit for lengthy and often confusing exams starting at the age of six. In international schools, the situation is better, but not much - there, students seem to be assessed not only on what they've learned from school but also, often, what they've learned elsewhere.

Herein lies the problem - and secret to Hong Kong's success. A reported 72 per cent of Hong Kong's secondary students receive out-of-school tutoring. Tutoring is now widely viewed as compulsory, no longer reserved for those who want to get ahead or catch up, but also for people who want to stay on course.

On the surface, this may seem appropriate, commendable even - especially when our students are so high up rankings like the Programme for International Student Assessment, the tutors are making money, and the schools ensure students enter top universities. Everybody wins, right?

Not if tutors are simply teaching to the test, which, sadly, most Hong Kong tutors do. Education success should not be judged on admissions results. What matters is how well our students do after they get in. Here, the answer is not so clear. A recent study shows that one in four Chinese students attending an Ivy League university drops out. Many were unable to adapt to the new environment.

Real academic success is not about eliminating questions in strategic order. It's about being innovative, thinking on your feet, reasoning critically, and solving problems that have no right answer. Will Hong Kong students master a real evaluation of learning? I don't know.

That's not to say, though, that we should ban tutoring. That's neither realistic nor productive. As a tutor, I am proud of the work I do with my students. Recently, we studied why the CEO of H&M wants a wage increase in Bangladesh. This led to a discussion on profit margins and whether greed is good. I saw an opportunity to go slightly off course. Rather than just hearing about businesses, I urged my students to start one. In a few weeks, my students will present their business plans to a real venture capitalist. If he likes one of their plans, he will invest real money.

Being able to go off at a tangent like this is exactly why I became a tutor. I don't think I'd be allowed to do the same if I worked in a traditional school. Yet, such tangents are more educational than a test. Even Pisa confirms this in its report. The data shows that schools with more autonomy over curriculums and assessments tend to perform better.

However, as long as our schools are test prep centres, teachers won't have real autonomy in schools. If Hong Kong is serious about improving education, we have to start eschewing the test, even if - and especially if - the test result is excellent.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com