Pupils' dread gave way to the exhilaration of examination officials yesterday after results showed more than nine out of 10 who took the new and much-criticised liberal studies exam got passing scores.
Some 90.8 per cent of pupils scored a level two or higher in the exam for the subject under the new Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education, a far better success rate than in mathematics or either of the two languages.
The scores stood in stark contrast to the pupils' concerns during the years-long run up the exam. The liberal studies curriculum was introduced in 2009 as a core requirement for all senior secondary school pupils looking to enter a Hong Kong university and many were nervous about how they would fare.
A recent survey showed that a majority of pupils found the subject difficult.
'This is exhilarating,' said Tong Chong-sze, secretary general of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). 'It shows that if you study hard, you will get there.'
Education authorities said they added liberal studies alongside Chinese, English and Mathematics to broaden students' horizons and encourage critical thinking. The exam results in liberal studies even exceeded those of the more established subjects.
Some 79.7 per cent earned a level two or higher in mathematics while 79.3 per cent passed in Chinese language and 79.2 per cent achieved passing scores in the English exam. Level two is widely considered passing since the government views it that way when students apply for most civil servant positions.
The gap between the two languages narrowed when compared to traditional scores under the A-levels examination, which is being phased out after this year, although the HKEAA said the results were not comparable because the two types of exams were different.
About 70,000 took the DSE exams while 40,000 took the A-levels.
In last year's A-levels, 75 per cent of pupils achieved a Grade E for use of English, while 95 per cent scored Grade E for Chinese language and culture. While the minimum course requirement to enter university was two subjects at level three and two level twos, most students took six or seven, said George Pook, of HKEAA.
Thirty-one students obtained more than six level five 'double-star' marks, reaching the top 1 per cent for a subject.
Three students were disqualified for plagiarism after they were found to have copied articles from the internet or other sources for their school projects, which under the DSE exam were also counted for grading.
The projects, aimed for Chinese language, history and liberal studies, were found to be problematic only after they were sent to the HKEAA. HKEAA officials stressed that they already had effective mechanisms in place to detect cheating.
Liberal studies teacher Yeung Ying-fai, however, said that if teachers were overloaded with other work, they might not have time to follow the progress of students closely enough.
'It may be the case that the student was rushing through the assignments at a very late stage while teachers did not spot it because they were not familiar with the work progress of students,' Yeung said.
Some 5,000 also applied for subjects under a category created by the diploma examiners called applied learning subjects, which were aimed at equipping students with practical career skills, such as automotive technology and radio production. More than 70 per cent of them were able to meet standards for the subjects to obtain a level two equivalent.
Tong said the aim of the diploma exam was to change the pass-or-fail mindset of students and parents, adding that the new grades were just one set of performance markers that students could use to continue their personal development.
Some 350 pupils scored below level one, as they failed to obtain enough marks to get a grade. About 47,800 obtained five level twos, meaning they were qualified to pursue subdegree programmes or qualify for civil servant positions.
By the numbers
Passing secondary-school examinations with flying colours will no longer mean scoring straight As, but straight 5s.
The first batch of Form Six secondary-school leavers to sit the Diploma of Secondary Education exams will receive six or seven numbers as their results today. The grades will range from 1 to 5, where 1 is the lowest. Obtaining a 2 is a pass.
A score of 3-3-2-2 in the core subjects of maths, English, Chinese and liberal studies will satisfy the basic requirements for a local university place.
In addition, pupils will receive scores for their two or three electives. This year, 37 per cent of 73,074 pupils who sat for the diploma have met the requirements for university.
Scoring a grade D in A-levels is equivalent to a 4 for the diploma exam.
But the diploma exam is not an equivalent to the A-levels. It serves instead as a middle ground between two now-defunct exams - the A-levels taken in Form Seven, and the Certificate of Education Examination taken in Form Five.
Top achievers scoring a 5 will be designated as 5** for the top 10 per cent, and 5* for the top 30 per cent.