Hong Kong slips to new low in international ranking for student performance in science

Programme for International Student Assessment finds that Hong Kong students fall to ninth in world rankings – down from second three years ago

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 9:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 11:00pm

The performance of Hong Kong students in science has dropped to a new low possibly because of a decrease in numbers studying the subject under the new senior secondary school curriculum, according to the results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Singapore students topped Hong Kong to become the world’s best at reading, maths and science.

Shanghai ranked first in the last three-yearly assessment in 2013. Hong Kong secondary school students aged 15 ranked second in science among 72 regions in 2013, but dropped to ninth this year. Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Macau and Vietnam all ranked higher. Hong Kong ranked second in maths, up from third in 2013 and remained second in reading.

More than 5,000 secondary school students from 138 schools in Hong Kong were randomly selected last year to have their ability in science, maths and reading tested. They were among 510,000 students assessed from around the world.

“I do not think this means Hong Kong students have a low ability in science. We have always been in the world’s top 10 in all three assessed aspects,” said Professor Esther Ho Sui-chu, director of the Centre for International Student Assessment in Hong Kong.

The “significantly lower” science ranking, according to Ho, came after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in this year’ s policy address a HK$2 billion investment fund for start-ups, on top of a HK$500 million fund to finance innovation projects after the establishment of the Innovation and Technology Bureau in November 2015.

Ho said a possible contributing factor in the drop was the launch of the new senior secondary school curriculum in 2009, which does not require students to choose subjects in either the arts or science stream.

According to the Examinations and Assessment Authority, the proportion of students who took all three science subjects – physics, biology and chemistry – dropped to 4.41 per cent in the 2014/15 school year from 40 per cent in the certificate of education exam in 2009 .

Just 0.4 per cent of students were considered top performers in science in the Pisa assessment, lower than the average 1.1 per cent in other participating places.

“This shows that the traditional trend of high-performing students tending to choose full science subjects has changed,” Ho said. “It also means students could be less confident in answering science questions as their scope of knowledge was less all-rounded.”

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She added that this year’s assessment had changed to be computer-based, and Hong Kong students may be at a disadvantage as information and communications technology learning in Hong Kong schools was not as widespread as in Singapore.

Dr Fok Ping-kwan, assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the Education University, echoed Ho’s view.

“Now many students choose their subjects for public examination according to their ideal university degree requirements. There are very few degrees asking for all three subjects, and therefore the drop in the number of students with science knowledge is understandable,” Fok said.

Lau Kwok-chi, a member of the research team for this year’s Pisa assessment in Hong Kong, said the city would need to wait for a few more assessments to conclude whether the drop was strongly related to changes in the education system as Hong Kong students performed best in the 2012 assessment when the new system was already in place.

“Such a drop does not mean it is necessarily a bad thing, because students now have greater flexibility in choosing the subjects they like,” Lau said.

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Esther Ho also highlighted the fact that the assessment in Singapore showed a strong correlation between student performance and economic, social and cultural status, meaning that richer students in Singapore had a higher chance of performing better.

The schools with the highest and lowest socio-economic status in Hong Kong were found to have students with results that showed a 4½-year learning difference even though they were the same age.

“Now that we see there is a problem in science education in the city, we need to think about what kind of students the society would like to see in the future, and review why our top-performing students do not want to pursue a future related to science ,” Ho said.

Hong Kong participated for the sixth time in the assessment developed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2000.