• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 5:22am
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 2:34am

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

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


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

My daughter is 6 years old and goes to what is considered a top-tier government primary school. She receives on average 4 to 6 homework assignments every day, and takes two or more tests each week. She has no time to play or watch TV. She frequently stays up past 10pm to finish her assignments, corrections and studies. The bulk of her weekends are spent revising for the next week's tests. I can't imagine how her teachers find time to do any real teaching between all the assessments. They claim we need to do better as parents to prepare our daughter for classes, but I'm wondering if we shouldn't simply swap titles.
If after school tutoring is needed to simply keep up with the syllabus, I have to wonder why these teachers are still employed if they cannot adequately prepare their students for their own tests without outside help.
And if I ever met the Hong Kong Secretary of Education, I'd be sorely tempted to throw an egg at his head. No, forget that. I'd beat his **** with a two-by-four.
...a child wants a professional career? A child?
Is the writer touting her own business? And who has ever pretended that exam success prepares you 'for the bigger test of life'? Exam success is only for exam success. This madness also prevails in some other countries, not just HK, but what can you do in the face of so much competition among your peer group?
Eddy Lam
Does the Author has more detailed suggestions to the Hong Kong Government how to improve the education system?
Is she qualified to advise the Govt? She only offers AFTER school care for kids! There are lots of other tutorial schools around which would be as qualified to comment.
You don’t know
“Will Hong Kong students master a real evaluation of learning”
I don’t know what you meant by “real evaluation of learning”
But I do know some HK student can and some can’t master it
HK students have earned top scores in problem solving skills
The main point is as hars put it
this is a "both/and" not "either/or" issue
We need to prepare our students for good exam results and more
Speakers at commencements are never tired of telling graduates
that they haven’t really learnt anything
despite their hard work thru college years
As an educator you may wish to spell out
how to develop the ingredients for “success”
in addition to technical skills schools impart?
How to develop a child’s
critical acumen
sense of responsibility
sense of proportion
interest in and respect for life
and the joy of appreciation and wonder?
Hars means parents who want their children to have professional careers.
If a child wants a professional career, e.g. doctor, dentist, lawyer, accountant, engineer, etc., he/she has no choice but must excel academically, regardless in Asia, Europe, or North America. I have been mentoring over hundreds of engineers and doctors in North America. Most of them tell me that their first educators/tutors are their parents and/or older siblings. In addition, they are encouraged to attend Ivy League schools, not because of better teachers, but their long academic traditions. I think most of the parents in Hong Kong delegate their responsibility of tutoring their children to private tutors, like Ms. Kelly Yang. In fact, the academic success of the children is the consequence of good parenthood and not be afraid of writing many examinations. This is a "both/and" not "either/or" issue.
By the way, if you want to know the importance of parent's tutoring, please study the Hippocratic Oath sworn by the medical graduates in their convocations.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as "a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier".[5] This is ratified by 192 of 194 member countries. (From: wikipedia.org)


SCMP.com Account