The media's job in getting the balance right in reporting the results of O-level examinations, and similarly A-levels, is never easy. On the one hand, the O-level exam is an important tool for assessing the achievement of students. Its results have a crucial bearing on the career paths of young people. The exemplary performance of good students should, quite rightly, be publicised. So it has become an annual ritual to track down the bright kids who score a clean sweep of A's. On the other hand, the tendency to glorify the success of able students intensifies pressure on those who perform poorly, some of whom may even see suicide as a way out of their misery. So the media also try to inform students of the availability of counselling services to help them plan their future. To impress on students that failing exams is not the end of the world, on Tuesday one newspaper published the O-level results of some of Hong Kong's prominent figures. Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen failed English literature and history and managed only a pass in Chinese language and mathematics. Trade Development Council executive director Michael Sze Cho-cheung, formerly secretary for the civil service, failed mathematics and had a pass in Chinese literature. Phillip Chan Yan-kin, chief executive of Metro Radio, failed Chinese language, mathematics and Chinese history. The worst scorer, solicitor Justein Wong Chun, chairman of the Outstanding Young Persons Association, failed all subjects. None of them scored an A in any subject. Some of them managed to attain acceptable results in their A-levels to get into universities, while others furthered their studies overseas or went straight into the job market. But all have subsequently risen through the ranks by excelling in their work, with some upgrading their formal qualifications by undertaking part-time courses. Windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, who shot to fame after winning Hong Kong's first ever gold medal in the Olympics, scored only fairly in her O-levels. She took them a second time, but her results did not improve. So should we tell our young people that their O-levels scores don't matter? Certainly not. And judging from the mood of the community, there is no sign that parents and students are downgrading the importance they place on academic excellence. But we do need to stress that academic prowess, as measured by one's performance in a three-hour, closed book written exam, is not everything. Critics have long pointed out that the current exam format does not reward creative or critical thinking. Rather, it rewards those students who have a good memory and are able to recite what they have learned at school. However, in the absence of a better and fairer tool of assessment, we have to accept it, with all its advantages and shortcomings. Good scores in O-levels mean the student has above-average skills and intelligence at that particular stage of his development, but no more than that. Poor performance means the individual concerned is not up to standard at that moment, although he may well be a late developer or has skills and knowledge which cannot be assessed by the current format. The success of the likes of Mr Tsang, Mr Sze and Ms Lee despite their lacklustre academic performances points to the fact that in real life individuals are not assessed just by how well they perform at school. Employers look for other attributes and non-academic knowledge in their employees. Unfortunately, as noted by Dr Cheng Kai-ming, the head of the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong, parents and the school sector as a whole still do not value non-academic achievement. He criticised parents for leading young people to view their road ahead as a single-plank bridge which they must cross and over which they had no control. 'There are other avenues of success, but children won't dare take or even think about these alternatives,' said Dr Cheng. In his view, these children, who lacked the confidence to face new challenges, were likely to live a life of mediocrity in a fast changing society like Hong Kong. What is heartening is that the territory has prospered over the past decades, despite this misconceived vision of academic excellence. But the social costs have been high. In the days when local higher education provision was available only to one to two per cent of the relevant age group, many young people took O-levels and A-levels repeatedly in order to qualify for admission into universities. Only after repeated failures would they consider other options, by which time they had wasted precious time or had had their confidence damaged. Today, the irony is that, while more university places are available, there are not enough qualified students even though more are completing form five and form seven. Increased provision of higher education has reinforced the importance of getting a degree, making the academically weak less and less willing to give up. This in turn is a main reason why the overall scores of O-levels have been worsening in recent years. According to the Hong Kong Examinations Authority (HKEA), between 1988 and 1995 there was a widening gap between the performance of students from top-third and bottom-third schools (as defined by their students' overall performance). Whereas 89.57 per cent of students from top-third schools had passes in at least five subjects last year, only 16.07 per cent of those from bottom-third schools managed to achieve that result. The gap of 73.5 percentage points compared with 68.49 recorded in 1988. The cause of the widening gap was that while only about 80 per cent of 15-year-olds were enrolled in form four classes in 1988, more than 88 per cent did in 1995 and most proceeded to take O-levels. This year's O-level results have not been analysed yet, but are expected to show a similar pattern. What has concerned the HKEA is that an increasing number of young people are leaving school without a meaningful qualification. Last year, the authority suggested that the O-level exams for Chinese, English and mathematics should be split into different modules so that the achievement of weaker students, who may well pass the easier modules and fail the difficult ones, could be appropriately assessed and documented. However, the proposal was rejected by 55 per cent of schools. Had the proposal been implemented, it might have had a soothing effect on some of the students whose score sheets are virtually useless. But it still begs the question of what we should do to improve school education. The trouble is that while the community holds academic excellence highly and most students study harder than their counterparts elsewhere, their performance, as reflected by exam scores, has been dismal. Hong Kong needs to do a lot more to improve the quality of school education. But above all, it needs a more balanced view of success and failure.