For another crop of local secondary school graduates, the day of reckoning has finally arrived. This year, results of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams show numbers that call for thoughtful interpretation.
Three sets of figures stand out.
First, more students failed to attain the minimum level in Chinese language required for university admission.
Second, a lower percentage of students passed the liberal studies subject.
Third, more students did better in English language.
Hidden in the statistics is another figure that speaks volumes about local education: DSE candidate numbers have dropped by about 3,000.
A decline in local birth rates may play a part. But, indisputably, more students are opting out of the local school system by going overseas or switching to locally provided International Baccalaureate programmes.
This is the third year in the life of DSE exams, and the system is a work in progress. The changes in subject results reflect its ongoing evolution.
English language pass rates, for instance, show a gain of 4 percentage points (52.8 per cent this year against 48.8 per cent last year).
Before we rush into self-congratulation over this improved performance, it could simply be because, after three years, teachers, students and tactically smart tutors have learned to navigate the new format better.
The same goes for the 12 super-achievers with their top scores in all the seven subjects they entered, three more than last year. We mustn't read too much into the positive numbers.
Meanwhile, liberal studies has seen its pass rates decline from 90.8 per cent in its first year to 88.5 per cent last year and 87.7 per cent this year.
Still, these results are high for a new subject. Exam designers probably didn't dare set the bar too high on its introduction and are now raising it.
But a bigger concern looms over the value of this novel subject. Meant to foster students' critical thinking, it errs in being too ambitious in scope, embracing six big content areas.
The project component of independent inquiry studies alone sucks up too much teacher energy and student time. The vast area of its coverage leaves students scrambling and complaining that it has degenerated into rote learning, defeating its original purpose.
The DSE exams do boast two well-intentioned new features. The first is school-based assessment, which allows students to be assessed by their own subject teachers. In the English paper, for example, school-based assessment accounts for 15 per cent of the student's score, with the rest coming from the exam.
School-based assessment is supposed to reduce overreliance on the outcome of a single examination. But it is dead on arrival, as the grade submitted by the school is subject to an "adjustment factor" that takes into account a school's comparative performance against other schools.
In underperforming schools, a student's school-based assessment score will be dragged down by his school's low collective score.
This adjustment factor, whose specifics are kept from schools, reflects the Examinations and Assessment Authority's distrust of teachers to submit an honest school-based assessment grade.
The second feature is that standards-referenced reporting (which tests how well or poorly a student has learned a subject) is supposed to replace the old normative measurement (against the performance of peers).
But, given the remarkable consistency of exam results from year to year, one wonders if this is just old wine in a new bottle.
Dubbed the "killer paper", the Chinese language exam is on everybody's lips this year, as only 51.8 per cent of candidates reached level 3 in it, the minimum required for university admission. It has derailed the dream of a university education for hundreds of students, despite their level 5 or better performance in English.
Notably lacking in top scorers this year are traditional cradles of champions such as English-medium La Salle College and Diocesan Girls' School.
I question the wisdom of dragging into exams impenetrable ancient Chinese classics, written in a dense language before the advent of printing technology.
Why not feature Chinese poetry (as promised in the syllabus), the supreme achievement of Chinese civilisation, in all its elegance, nobility and intensity?
Why make the Chinese paper so dauntingly difficult, unless it is to push more students overseas or outside the mainstream Joint University Programmes Admissions System?
An exam system that drives students to defect is by definition anti-education.
Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of HKUST and co-founder of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English. Philipkcyeung2@yahoo.com