Can a new US-based education initiative change Hong Kong’s obsession with exam grades?
An international network of schools is planning to upend the grades-based secondary school system widely thought to ruin students’ mental health
In an effort to spur reform in Hong Kong’s secondary schools, one independent school head is challenging convention by joining a US-based education coalition dedicated to moving away from traditional exams and grades.
Rather than academic results, the proposed system looks at other qualities like leadership, scientific thinking, initiative and numeracy – attributes that employers are really looking for, says Toby Newton, head of International College Hong Kong (ICHK) in the New Territories.
The 55-year-old Briton says: “Our current secondary school system is based on a fantasy that says you can assess the value of a person from a narrow set of GCSE or A-level grades. It also says that it is necessary to standardise, because that’s what employers and universities want. None of this is true.”
Among the student development techniques Newton espouses are “free-learning” projects. In one example, students are told they must build a shelter somewhere on school grounds.
“There are no rules, other than you can’t use any sharp implements. You can tie things together. You can use whatever you want. Once you’ve built it, the staff come and spray the shelter with water, and the objective is to stay dry. The kids love it.
“They work as a team; they improvise; they innovate; they have to customise to meet the challenge. They need to have good humour when it goes wrong. Sometimes they have to pick themselves up and start over.”
Newton says adopting such unconventional classes can help secondary schools to “move away from a grades-based system to one that encourages student growth”.
In pursuit of this approach, this year ICHK signed up to the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), a US-led network of schools helping to develop a new type of academic record that can be presented to universities.
This new concept “is organised around performance areas (instead of academic departments), mastery standards and micro-credits (rather than grades)”, MTC says.
While the initiative is still in its infancy, Newton believes such a revision is vital. “Grading systems serve only to make young people unhappy and anxious,” he says, adding that parents recognise this.
“The parents on our governing body are totally behind what we are doing. As a head of school I feel completely supported.”
In practice, Newton says, developing a new type of academic transcript could “redefine the secondary school as we know it”.
“Standardisation harms children, students and individuals,” he says. “When parents are choosing a school for their kids, the first question they should ask is: ‘Is my child going to be happy, secure and looked after?’ and not ‘what grades can my child get?’”
Responding to Newton’s claims about Hong Kong’s exam-based system, Legislative Council member Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said: “I agree that education focusing only on grades is harmful to our children. It has resulted in the widespread practice of drilling in schools and in [private tutorial classes] after school. Our children lack time to sleep, play and learn.”
Cheung offered his own answer to the problem: “The solution is to expand subsidised tertiary education and put much less emphasis on the DSE,” he said, referring to the Diploma of Secondary Education, the city’s secondary-level leaving examinations.
The criticisms on the system also appear to be backed by statistics. A 2017 survey suggested that half of all secondary and tertiary-level students in Hong Kong show signs of depression.
Local students are also leaving school unprepared for the workplace, with the Economist Intelligence Unit, a British research and advisory group, last year ranking the city’s education policy at number 22 globally. Singapore ranked first.
But lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen says it will be hard for Hong Kong secondary schools to move away from the DSE. “It’s difficult because the desire of parents for their children to get into university is very high.”
Ip points out that, while many countries have vocational streams that enable students to gain a non-exam-based qualification, “in Hong Kong most secondary students are in this entirely academic system – and we’re very standardised under the framework of the DSE”.
Ip says that the current system “works by repetition: exam skills are repeated again and again, and this hurts real learning and reduces motivation and creativity”.
Newton, however, still harbours hope that change will come. And it starts with teachers at the secondary level, he says.
“The job of the secondary schoolteacher ... is absolutely unparalleled. If you get it right, you give students the most critical foundation upon which they can build.”