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Hong Kong schools

Hong Kong schools need performance reviews, with or without TSA

Katherine Forestier welcomes the revamp of the despised schools testing, but cautions that it won’t solve the problem of over-drilling in Hong Kong’s education system, and that some form of system-wide assessment is still needed to enable improvements

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 5:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 9:40pm

So the Hong Kong government has bowed further to public pressure on the much-hated Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). From this year, primary schools need only enter a randomly selected 10 per cent of their Primary Three pupils to sit the annual test, with no school identified even to the adjudicators of the exercise, according to the Education Bureau’s announcement last week

Schools can, however, choose to fully participate, a future can of worms if parents don’t want their children to take part, as some have already indicated, or if those schools persist in over-drilling for the test. 

Will this policy move work, and how will it serve the best interests of children?

A bit of international perspective is useful. Hong Kong is far from alone in running system-wide tests towards the end of the various key stages of education – in its case, the TSA has been taken by children at Primary Three, Primary Six and Secondary Three, before the final public exams at Secondary Six. 

Countries such as Australia and Britain have similar regimes, and similar controversies that have led to parents’ threats to boycott the tests. This is no coincidence, given that Hong Kong borrowed from these practices. 

TSA or no, school pressures to remain

The authorities in all these places, including Hong Kong, tell us that data from the tests are necessary to check overall progress – at system and school level – in achieving basic standards in the core literacy and numeracy subjects, and to monitor whether performance is equitable across different schools. They all insist that there should be no special drilling, with strong performance merely reflecting general good teaching and learning. 

The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority goes further in reminding us on its TSA webpage: “Over-drilling not only weakens students’ interest in learning but also affects the rest time of teachers and students, resulting in unnecessary pressure.” 

Compared with England and Australia, Hong Kong is in fact a model of better practice, because of a policy to make the test low stakes. School results have never been published; test questions have been made easier; and non-academic data is now collected to set results in the wider context of the school. 

Most importantly, an explicit purpose of the exercise has been to give professional support to schools with weaker overall results, rather than shame them. 

In contrast, in England and Australia, results are published and offered to parents as a key source of information for choosing schools. It is no wonder that teachers feel pressured to focus time and resources on what is tested, rather than the higher ideals of a balanced curriculum. 

Hong Kong, like so many other systems, strives for the holy grail of “equity” and “quality” in education. The concern among educationalists – as articulated so well by Bob Lingard of the University of Queensland, at the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong’s spring conference held this month – is that those words have been reframed through an overreliance on data from tests, rather than deeper concerns for the philosophy, ethics and social justice of education. 

In Hong Kong, the TSA has been popularly blamed for introducing a data-driven drilling culture. Yet that reflects a serious amnesia – schools here have long been famed for their excessive rote learning and testing regimes, and for giving out too many hours of homework to young children. It has been the remit of successive reforms, stretching back even before 1997, to change that culture. 

Is there a solution to Hong Kong’s education system nightmare?

So, can testing a randomly selected 10 per cent of a school’s Primary Three pupils work? In theory, it lowers the stakes still further, and it is good that children with special educational needs, and non-Chinese speakers, will be sampled separately. But the gaming opportunities are obvious. What will stop schools giving their academically weaker pupils a day off on that day – a practice reported to happen in schools in England? And will it stop schools, still mistrustful of government intentions, from drilling all children so the 10 per cent jump through the highest hoop? It can only work in a culture of trust. 

Schools and the public must accept that some form of accountability is important, for children, parents, teachers and the community that funds public education

Schools and the public must also accept that some form of accountability is important, for children, parents, teachers and the community that funds public education. The TSA has gone hand in hand with the other key levers in our education policy – the curriculum that lays down system-wide expectations; school-based management intended to give schools freedom to chose how to achieve them; and, quality assurance through a mix of external review and self-evaluation.

Despite evidence that differences between schools have narrowed as a result of various reforms since 2000, variations remain, in the quality of school leadership, practices, and educational outcomes, along with widening socio-economic differ­ences among pupils. 

We owe it to our children to know what is going on in the schools. In the real world, we can’t trust principals to tell us because, like leaders in any market-driven organisation, their default is to give us the rosiest picture. 

Where the quality assurance process needs to be tougher is on the excessive testing and drilling. Schools also need support, through sharing good practices, in implementing low-stakes formative assessment – assessment through a variety of means (not just exams) that identifies a child’s progress and informs future teaching. That should allow for the lightest touch of external testing and review. 

Hong Kong educators have forgotten that schooling should be fun

But we should also heed the words of the economist Thomas Piketty: “Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” Schools should want to know where they stand at system level so they can use those numbers not for their glory but as one source of information to inform their practices. 

Given that the intentions behind the TSA haven’t worked out in practice, the retreat from universal testing in Primary Three should be welcomed. But for our children’s sake, schools must still be held to professionally informed public account. 

The problem in Hong Kong is not the TSA alone but the toxic political environment and knee-jerk antagonism towards education policymakers. The political Punch and Judy show needs to be replaced by professional trust, and dialogue about the “who”, “when”, “what”, “how” and “why” of system-wide assessment – informed by the rationale for education, and social justice for children.

Dr Katherine Forestier is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning at the Education University of Hong Kong and a former education editor at the Post