Latest initiative adds to burden

Icy Lee

ENGLISH TEACHERS IN Hong Kong have unenviable lives, having to cope with heavy demands from work and intense pressure to upgrade themselves, with little recognition for the good work they do.

One initiative under education reforms that will affect them is the new Hong Kong Certificate of Education (HKCE) English language examination, which is to be implemented in 2007.

This new assessment, consisting of a public examination component and school-based assessment (SBA), will affect students entering Form Four in September.

While most educators applaud the move away from norm-referenced to standards-referenced assessment in the public exam component, the implementation of SBA is causing teachers to shudder. The simple reason is that SBA will put the onus on English teachers to take charge of the whole business of assessing students, and to ensure that the assessment is fair and reliable. The task is daunting, and teachers are ill-equipped for it.

Under the new SBA, which is worth 15 per cent of the total English exam mark, students will need to read and view four texts during Forms Four and Five. These consist of two print texts and two non-print, such as videos or films, including one fiction and one non-fiction for each category. After reading or viewing the texts, students will write comments and personal reflections and then engage in a discussion with classmates on what they have read and viewed. They will also make individual presentations on the texts and answer teachers' questions.

The assessment will be based solely on the students' oral performances, to be assessed according to set criteria. Teachers will need to undertake at least two assessments in Form Four and Five respectively, and will report the best mark at the end of each school year. They can choose from several assessment results to report each time, with no restrictions on the maximum number of tasks in any one year.


To standardise the assessment, internal moderation meetings will be conducted. Teachers will review students' video or audio-taped oral performances, compare judgments, adjust marks if necessary, and repeat the process until they feel they are clear about how their students' oral texts fit with the system expectations and criteria of SBA. There will also be inter-school moderation involving groups of 25 schools, where the moderation process will be repeated with the SBA co-ordinators.

The idea of having to tape students' oral assessments, select recordings for moderation, and discuss them in meetings is intimidating. Time is a concern, but more importantly, teachers need to acquire the skills to do it. They need training.

Apart from assessing students, monitoring their reading or viewing of the selected books or films is a tall order. What can teachers do to prevent students from cheating by regurgitating major points of the texts without having read or watched them, and by reciting oral presentations prepared by tutorial schools? And when students are not motivated to do anything at all, what can teachers do?

With a class of 40 students, the amount of time teachers will have to spend organising two oral assessment activities for each student will be enormous. There will also be tedious record-keeping.


Text selection is another thing. Teachers will have to deliberate on which four texts to use. Given teachers in Hong Kong have a habit of relying on a limited range of texts, mostly course books, text selection that includes books and films, fiction and non-fiction, will be a challenge.

Access to texts could be a problem too. Will all the recommended texts be available from local bookstores? Plus, not everybody has a computer or DVD player at home.


When extensive reading is tied to a high-stakes examination, reading may no longer be a pleasure but a source of pressure. The beneficial washback effect in relation to the development of extensive reading is questionable.

There are also doubts about the positive washback regarding the development of speaking skills. Giving oral presentations in English is not motivating for a lot of students in Hong Kong, and would probably be worse when the oral activities have to be based on personal reflections and bound up with a critical examination.

It only makes sense to think that with such a new assessment initiative that is going to affect thousands of students, English teachers must be provided with plenty of support and resources. The whole idea of SBA is to empower teachers to become part of the assessment process. However, teachers cannot feel empowered when they are overwhelmed by work.


Stephen Andrews, of the University of Hong Kong, has found in his recent good practices study that effective teachers have a strong sense of efficacy, and facilitating conditions have to be in place to support the implementation of good practice.

When feeling of self-efficacy is at risk, and facilitating conditions are lacking, English teachers cannot but resent the upcoming SBA.

What makes matters worse is that details of the new assessment were formally announced only late last month - four months before its commencement. Conscientious teachers feel strongly that to prepare for SBA, they have to start working now. But training will not begin until after the 2005 academic year starts. When teachers are not professionally ready, one cannot help but ask if this is the best time for its implementation.


There should be little controversy regarding the well-intentioned principles that inform SBA. Like other new initiatives, SBA would not be immune from problems. If SBA is to fulfil its underlying assumptions and to become a positive tool for achieving teacher empowerment and enhancing student learning, something must be done to help frontline English teachers.

As more and more experienced teachers are quitting or applying for demotion to avoid additional responsibilities, such as overseeing the English panel or co-ordinating new initiatives, let us keep our fingers crossed that no teacher will flinch from co-ordinating SBA.

Icy Lee is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.