Reviled standard school test is a scapegoat for Hong Kong’s flawed education system

Alice Wu says scrapping the TSA, essentially a pop quiz for education officials to track how schools are doing, won’t resolve the complaints of students and parents about too much homework

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 9:00am

Everyone is talking about TSA, administered by the HKEAA. I’m increasingly convinced that acronyms make us dumb, and here’s why. According to the HKEAA , or Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, TSA stands for the “Territory-wide System Assessment”. And the authority defines that as – I kid you not – “an assessment administered at the territory level”. This, of course, explains nothing, except why almost everyone wants it scrapped – because if the administrator can’t explain what it is, why have one?

TSA is not the culprit for overloading our students with studying, homework and tests

Let’s imagine a world without TSA. According to Hung Ngai-yam, a Primary Three student, one of the youngest to have spoken at a Legislative Council hearing on the test, scrapping the TSA would give him time to play, or play sport. Without TSA stress, according to testimony, the quality of life for students, parents and teachers would improve vastly.

The convenor of a TSA parent concern group said that pushing teachers to reach standards for TSA was unreasonable because it “ignores the difference among individual students”. If so, then, in our perfect “no TSA” world, individual talent would flourish and individual attention be given to students.

READ MORE: Hong Kong parents plan class boycott over TSA exam pressure on pupils

READ MORE: Student ‘happy’ to take TSA exam? Hong Kong lawmakers trade political jabs over testimony at Legco hearing

Unfortunately, TSA is not evil, and scrapping it would not get our kids to exercise. TSA is simply a way of measuring whether students are taught the languages and maths. The problem is its objectives have been lost, because test results have been skewed with prepping – in our case, excessive prepping. With such skewed results, it serves no purpose in assessing student learning, teaching and curriculum.

Pop quizzes exist for many reasons – there is no prepping for pop quizzes, it gives teachers an idea where students are and the chance for them to adjust accordingly their teaching methods and curriculum focus.

TSA is just a territory-wide pop quiz, and the best part is that it’s not meant to test our kids, but how well our schools are teaching our kids. It’s about accountability, allocation of resources and culpability to be shouldered by the grown-ups. While it may seem counterintuitive for principals, teachers and parents not to drill kids for TSA, the drilling is, in fact, counterproductive.

READ MORE: Parents who spend hours preparing children for Hong Kong TSA exams have ‘herd mentality’, education expert says

Some of the questions must inherently be hard, as that is the only way to measure the gap between high and low achievers. How else would the authority be able to identify underperforming schools and allocate resources and support to help their students?

Scrapping it would risk widening the achievement gap between traditionally underserved students and schools and their more privileged peers. Reviewing and fine-tuning the system is absolutely necessary but scrapping it would leave the most vulnerable unprotected, and it defeats the entire purpose of education.

READ MORE: A simple answer to the angst over Hong Kong’s TSA tests: ban schools from drilling students

TSA has become a highly emotive issue and a highly politicised one. But we must remember that Hong Kong children’s well-being is not going to be achieved by removing one standardised test that requires no drilling and delivers blind results. TSA is not the culprit for overloading our students with studying, homework and tests.

The response so far to TSA is indicative of how frustrated everyone is with the education system.

Taking a step back from this, the larger question should be: what is good education? Learning should be inspiring and empowering. Education is about expanding horizons and building lives, hopes and dreams, and not about branding kids and crushing their dreams.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA