My Take

Trust, not tests, is the real issue with TSA

There is nothing inherently wrong with benchmarking the core competence of students in key subjects, but drilling students is simply cheating

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 2:09am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 2:09am

Eddie Ng Hak-kim is picking a fight. The secretary for education just refuses to go quietly into the sunset. He started his job five years ago with the failed proposal for national education, which turned into a major political crisis for the government.

Now, he looks set to end his tenure by reinstating the controversial, if redesigned, TSA tests – or whatever education bureaucrats call them these days – for primary school pupils. I don’t know if he is brave or foolhardy. A new competence exam – revamped to be shorter and simpler than the hated Territory-wide System Assessment – will be used for all primary schools. It was tested in dozens of schools last year.

Are revamped tests just more of the same for Hong Kong kids?

Ng told lawmakers that the new system was based on the recommendations of a task force of experts and would eliminate overdrilling while improving learning and teaching. Unsurprisingly, parental and political groups that have opposed TSA consider the latest scheme a declaration of war. Some are threatening to boycott schools.

Ng and the Education Bureau don’t seem to realise that public opposition is not so much about the format and purpose of the tests; the problem is a serious breakdown of trust between schools, parents and the government.

There is nothing inherently wrong with benchmarking the core competence of students in key subjects such as Chinese, English and maths to determine if schools are performing well. It is common and necessary practice, not only in Hong Kong but around the world. For such benchmarks to be meaningful, though, drilling should not only be discouraged – it must be banned as cheating.

All Hong Kong primary schools should take part in new competence exam, says education secretary

But for more than a decade, education officials turned a blind eye to excessive and widespread overdrilling and went through the charade as if it was all genuine benchmarking. Then parents rebelled, and political parties took up their cause. Today, despite repeated assurances, parents don’t trust schools not to drill their children, and schools don’t trust the bureau not to rank or penalise them by their students’ performance.

You can tell parents the new tests are much easier, that they have been devised by the best experts in the field. It may even be true. But the format of the tests is no longer the issue. Unless education officials can restore trust in the system, no amount of reassurance about the tests will suffice.