Hong Kong’s ‘objective’ student evaluations are a blight that need to be removed

Philip Yeung says the Territory-wide System Assessment, created by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, merely adds to the unnecessary pressure in the classroom and should be axed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 2:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 2:26pm

While Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has promised to turn his attention to livelihood issues, he doesn’t seem to be including education in this, even though it defines the lives of countless children, teachers and parents.

Sitting behind their desks, bureaucrats don’t see the misery their schemes have dispensed. Take the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), for instance. Imposed on Primary Three  and Six  children, plus Form Three  at the secondary level, it is supposed to “facilitate assessment for learning by providing schools with objective data on students’ performance” in Chinese, English and maths.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, bureaucrats never reckon with the law of unintended consequences. “Assessment” has become the master, and “teaching” is reduced to its servant.  

When the scheme first began, its intention was honourable: to replace one “do-or-die” school-entrance exam, with two, thus spreading the risk and reducing the pressure on pupils. When it came under attack, it was downgraded to a school assessment. But what the government handed down became commandments on a tablet.  

Consequently, schools have devoted two years to priming their students – the year before and the year during each assessment – turning teachers into drill masters and students into sufferers.

Our public primary schools are among the world’s most stressful, producing emotionally brittle kids with no interest and curiosity in learning.  

If you listen to the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, the TSA reports are supposed to “provide information about students’ strengths and weaknesses against specific basic competencies”. Further, these reports are said to “help schools and teachers enhance their plans on learning and teaching”. In fact, they do neither. Instead, they give functionaries the tool to browbeat the schools, urging them to drill even harder, ratcheting up the pressure on everyone.  

The sad truth is that the TSA scheme has become a reason for its own being

The authority  also claims these reports “help the government to review policies and to provide focused support to schools”. I challenge the authority to name one thing these reports have achieved in producing better policies for better schools. The sad truth is that the TSA scheme has become a reason for its own being – needing no justification for its continued existence.  

What is fragile and precious is the children’s sense of wonder, but you wouldn’t expect arms-length bureaucrats to understand this. Here, non-stop drills have numbed their senses. So much for “whole person” education.

The damage trickles down to the economy. Many mothers quit working just to help their children survive these ordeals. Tutorial centres are doing a booming business. Many a family holiday has been sacrificed in pursuit of a better grade point average.

Why are we inflicting this cruelty on children? The answer: education officials  never send their children to  schools where TSA has a stranglehold. They use their portable educational allowances to send their kids overseas or to local private schools.

The least they should do is practise laissez-faire and let teachers teach as they have been trained.

It’s time for Article 100 of the Basic Law to be repealed. This is the provision that guarantees civil servants the same perks they enjoyed pre-handover, including educational allowances. In Singapore, civil servants (indeed, all native Singaporeans) break the law if they opt out of the public school system. Here, they are paid to abandon it. Don’t even talk about good governance until we have straightened out this warped logic. With  65 per cent of teachers against it, isn’t it time to end this scheme?  

TSA is a blunt instrument in the hands of control freaks who have no faith in teachers. Leung can exorcise the demons now haunting our schools by axing it. He will be hailed a hero who has restored sanity to our schools, and a decent childhood to their young inmates. That is good news he can use.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. [email protected]