In October, a remarkable drop in the pass rates of the Hong Kong Standard III Inspectorate Professional Examination held by the police force for officers who hope to make the step up to senior and chief inspector ranks sparked serious concern both within the force, and among the public.
Only 30 of the 225 candidates passed the exam; in 2007 almost all the candidates passed. In one particular paper in October's exam, only 6.3 per cent of candidates passed. A thorough investigation and review into those results was obviously needed in order to explain to both the candidates and the public whether the low marks were merely due to a shift in the examination methodology that caught the candidates off-guard, or whether the candidates were simply not up to standard this time.
A three-page report has now been submitted to the Legislative Council, but its conclusions raise more questions than answers. Either there was no intention to fully disclose why the marks were so low, or the review was not thorough enough. According to the report, the October exam 'did not substantially differ in format, content or composition' to previous exams, and the poor marks were due to inadequate preparation, overreliance on past paper revision, and weak knowledge of new topical issues relating to law and order and the new social environment. But if there was no change in examination techniques, why were this year's candidates so ill-prepared compared with their predecessors? Has there been such a dramatic loss of resources that officers now have far fewer opportunities to prepare for exams than before? Or was this batch of candidates quite simply not up to standard?
Those familiar with these examinations have observed that the most recent exam papers did indeed include questions that required a different sort of critical thinking than in previous years. A common criticism of the debriefing report on the latest exam answers was that the answers simply listed the elements of an offence without discussing or comparing the subtle but important distinctions between offences. Questions that were based on real-life scenarios which were reported on by the media and discussed by legislators were also poorly answered.
If there was a concerted attempt to revise the examinations so as to test greater critical thinking and problem-solving, then this should be welcomed. Promotion to senior levels should not be an automatic process. The Hong Kong public has come to require higher standards of its police force, and especially from those in positions to make far-reaching decisions, while navigating through legal and political minefields. It is to be hoped that the examiners are not deterred from setting such questions in the future.
But at the same time, it must be remembered that the purpose of these exams is to identify the elite within the police force. Officers who scored poorly in the exams may merely have lacked sufficient time to prepare because of their current duties, or were not properly briefed about the requirements. The past record of officers in ordinary front-line tasks must also be taken into consideration, for there is no point only promoting those who are good at such problem-solving exercises but incompetent at hands-on policing.
No matter how the questions are phrased, examination marks can sometimes be misleading. The most important priority is to give assessors a reliable barometer of an officer's ability, and a platform on which the best officers can perform.