To beat student stress, Hong Kong should support its schools, not punish them

Cheung Kwan Lok calls for a mindset change that must start with the Education Bureau, so as to address the concerns raised by TSA detractors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 6:21pm

The pubic outcry to scrap the TSA for good was reignited last week at a special Legislative Council meeting held to discuss student suicides. The Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), a test administered by the Education Bureau to gauge student standards to help it improve its support for teaching and learning, is seen by parents and students to be a major factor adding to student stress, which has been blamed for the suicides.

In its final report, a committee tasked with looking into the deaths cautioned that there was “no substantial direct link” between the suicides and the education system. Nevertheless, detractors say the TSA placed an unbearable burden on children and teenagers. Are they right?

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It has been reported that schools that underperformed in the test received unwelcome attention from the bureau. Afraid of falling into that category, TSA-conscious schools end up adopting practices that are surprisingly similar: modelling instruction and assessment after the TSA and assigning additional homework for exam-drilling.

However, such “teaching to the test” practices are not the only way to improve performances. In one documented case in the US, for example, a high school teacher used the curriculum as a scaffold for activities which promoted higher-order thinking, such as debates and hands-on exploration, and managed to satisfy both the demand for accountability and the in-depth learning of her students.

Student performance in standardised testing is a widely recognised criterion for assessing the fulfilment of accountability. But while the government needs to play the role of a gatekeeper, enforcing accountability policies may cause misery and work against the provision of quality education.

A new type of sponsoring body is needed to manage our schools

In many regions and countries, typical government interventions in response to unmet standards are mostly intimidatory and punitive. Such a response fails to recognise a key factor to improving learning – individualised support in the form of resources and manpower. After identifying underachieving schools, the authorities should look into those schools’ profiles (such as student demographics, teacher qualifications, teaching strategies and school facilities), and proffer corresponding support rather than sanctions.

The Education Bureau’s intimidatory stance towards “failing” schools and local teachers’ entrenched belief in the necessity of exam-drilling have led to negative consequences. To reduce anxiety and improve the quality of education, the bureau should administer well-directed support rather than penalties to schools who lag behind in TSA results, and promote “teaching beyond the test” in schools.

Cheung Kwan Lok is a graduate of the Hong Kong Institute of Education (now the Education University of Hong Kong)