Hong Kong schools still emphasise exam scores rather than learning

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:02am

To the relief of Secondary Six students, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination has come to an end. The months and years of anxious anticipation for the high-stakes exam are finally over. What remains now is the release of results in early July, when each candidate will find out whether they have made it to university.

Besides acceptance into publicly funded universities, it is also worth considering how much students have benefited from their studies. As part of the education reform, the new senior secondary curriculum leading to the exam provides for a range of experiences beyond the classroom. These days, students engage in diverse experiences through site visits, trips, community services and project-based learning. School life today is supposed to be more colourful and inspiring than ever. But is it?

Letters from students that poured into this paper late last month suggested otherwise. One, who called himself a DSE slave, said he woke up every day at 7am for school, then did more studying after school until "the moon hangs in the sky".

Another lamented the pressure accentuated by parents' excessive expectations.

A teacher wrote in, criticising the unreasonably difficult English reading paper in this year's exam.

A talk with a candidate this year gave me the same impression: contrary to the aim of the curriculum design, which is supposed to bring diversity to students' lives, many remain trapped in a tight race, focusing more on examination skills than anything else.

The candidate, who attends an elite school, began having tutorial lessons in maths when she was in Secondary Two, received tutoring in English from Secondary Four and in liberal studies from the last term of Secondary Five.

Often the lessons involved drilling in past exam papers and examination skills. The exam she had just sat convinced her of the importance of answering questions properly.

In English, for example, she was taught to follow certain sentence structures, and avoid using clichés such as "every cloud has a silver lining" . Clichés cause one to lose, rather than gain marks, she was told. She said there are also "secrets" to tackling other exams, but she would not disclose them. "Sometimes, I thought it was enough just to go to a tutorial school," she quipped.

At one point, the preoccupation with getting high exam scores led her to question the purpose of studying, as well as the meaning of life, she added.

The same feeling could be shared by many others caught in a competitive system.

Figures from the latest survey on the tutoring trend, conducted in 2011 and 2012 by Mark Bray, a chair professor in comparative education at the University of Hong Kong, showed that 72 per cent of Secondary Six students were receiving tutoring. The core subjects of English, mathematics and Chinese were the most popular.

Students in higher-band schools were found to be more likely to receive tutoring than their counterparts in lower-band schools.

Undoubtedly the tutoring trend has also spread among international schools. As Bray points out, that could have much to do with tiger mums in the sector.

But back to the local system, because universities' admissions still hinge much on HKDSE scores, students naturally try to maximise ways to get as high a score as possible. Some, as Bray says, took tutorial lessons as an insurance policy.

Tutorial schools have much to gain when there seems to be a disconnect between the way our exam papers are set and the school curriculum. Contrary to the laudable goal of independent learning, students become dependent on tips and skills disseminated at tutorial classes, large or small.

There is always a place for personal tutors who can arouse an interest in learning. But a commercial set-up is hardly favourable to the cultivation of intellectual curiosity.

Without such curiosity, it will be hard for students to derive joy and satisfaction from making discoveries, or learning. When they have little initiative to learn, they can't develop the capacity to "think out of the box", as much as educators and officials want them to.

It is time to review our own examination system and the way students are assessed so they can enjoy more of their school life.