For many Hong Kong students, over-drilling for exams denies them the joy of learning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 1:29am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 1:29am

Examinations are a big deal in Hong Kong. Pupils are being coached to cope with exams as early as the third year in primary schools. The phenomenon owes much to the highly competitive education system as well as the importance attached to academic achievement by schools and parents. The children are sadly denied the joy of learning and become exam-oriented robots.

The grievances of those who felt victimised by the system can be reflected in the response to an online campaign. Having gathered support from tens of thousands of disgruntled parents, the organiser issued an open letter urging the government to scrap the open exam for Primary Three pupils. But education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim insisted that the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), which gauges pupil's competence in languages and mathematics, was necessary. The problem lay with over-drilling, not the exam, he said.

The government stresses that the exam can give teaching feedback to schools and will not affect pupils' admission to secondary school. But schools which do not perform well will feel pressure inevitably. That explains why they spend much time coaching pupils to get higher marks.

Coincidentally, exam drillings were also put on the agenda of the US government this week. But the response was rather different. Instead of blaming parents and schools, the US education department admitted that there were far too many exams. The issue was even taken up by President Barack Obama, who said parents have rightly expressed worries that too much testing would take away the joy of learning. He instructed the education authorities to eliminate "drill-and-kill" test preparations and cap test taking time at 2 per cent of classroom time.

According to a US study earlier, each student will take more than 100 mandatory tests between kindergarten and grade 12, representing 20 to 25 hours of testing a year. Similar figures for Hong Kong exams have yet to be produced for comparison.

As long as there are exams, pupils will feel compelled to study hard. But the pressure can be reduced if schools and parents adopt a more relaxed approach. The TSA has its merits in that it can help identify room for improvement in teaching and learning. If the stakeholders are still worried that the exam may affect school rankings and admission, the government should worker harder to ease their concerns.