The high percentage of open-ended questions in the paper was unfair to students who are not native speakers. Photo: SCMP Pictures

English exam paper was too difficult for Hong Kong secondary students

Kendra Ip

I am writing to express my disappointment with the latest English paper in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination this month.

My frustration comes from the ignorance of the reading paper setters about their target candidates, which is an unacceptable mistake in setting a public exam paper. Even the native-speaking English teachers who work in Hong Kong secondary schools have, over time, come to appreciate the general English level of local students. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, which has a long history of setting our exam papers.

Firstly, the reading passages of the exam this year, which were sourced from , and a New South Wales government document, have exposed the authority's lack of basic understanding about the socio-economic background and daily trials of most local DSE students.

A majority of Hong Kong students are not from middle-class or rich families. Moreover, they have to struggle with four core subjects and two or three electives over three years, along with their school-based assessments. It is impossible for them to spend much time learning the English Language. Setting reading passages from overseas contexts, and expecting the students to have some familiarity with such material, is too idealistic and demanding.

Worse still, the high percentage of open-ended questions in the reading paper was unfair to students who are just teens, and not native speakers. The questions go beyond testing the basic English comprehension ability of the candidates, and they do so under extremely stressful exam conditions.

It is well known that DSE exam results are the benchmark for university admission and job application in Hong Kong. If the authority is aiming to raise DSE to an international level, targeted at global candidates, by following exams like the International English Language Testing System, should it not have informed local parents, students and teachers first?


It is high time the authority review its English reading paper to do candidates justice. Indeed, the paper is significant to candidates not only for its own weighting but also because it is being used in correlation with the oral paper and school-based assessment scores. The level of difficulty of the paper is very important to students.

As a frontline teacher, I also need the authority's help to explain the answers of all the open-ended questions because even native speakers of different nationalities who have attempted them could not give me answers.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: DSE English paper asks too much of local students