Hongkongers’ university dreams dashed by HKDSE Chinese exam

Hongkongers’ university dreams dashed by HKDSE Chinese exam

Dubbed the “paper of death”, poor Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education results are proving a major hindrance to admission

Daniel Lee Cheuk-hin aced the maths and science exams for his Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) last year. He also scored grade 4 for English. That’s pretty good going, but his Chinese result came as an enormous blow: he only achieved grade 2. The failed grade dashed his dreams of entering university, rendering his stellar results in other subjects meaningless.

“Unfortunately, you need a [minimum of] grade 3 in Chinese to enter university. I was shocked and couldn’t accept it,” Lee says. “In my class that year, I was the only one with one subject that didn’t meet the minimum entrance requirement. All my friends got into university.”

The 19-year-old enrolled for an associate degree course in science and studied Chinese daily for a second attempt at HKDSE this year.

Lee paid extra attention to improving his reading skills, his lowest score. “I did drilling every day, doing papers and exercises. I returned to my school once a month to meet my Chinese-language teacher, who read and corrected my writing, helping me improve my composition skills,” Lee says.

“Throughout that year, I didn’t want to see anyone, especially my high school friends. I felt embarrassed and didn’t know what to say to them.”

However, Lee’s hard work paid off; he scored a grade 3 in Chinese and eventually secured a place in the chemistry programme at Chinese University.

Many Hong Kong students have experienced similar anguish over their Chinese exam since the government introduced the HKDSE in 2012. Although Chinese is the main language used in Hong Kong, half of all candidates fail the subject annually.

Indeed, fewer students scored grade three or above for their Chinese exam than for English in the past two years.


In 2012, 50 per cent of 70,282 candidates attained grade 3 or higher for Chinese, compared with 50.1 per cent for English.

Last year, 52 per cent of 65,270 candidates attained grade 3 or higher for Chinese, compared with 53 per cent for English.

Students fare so poorly in HKDSE Chinese that some pundits have dubbed it the paper of death.

Because it is becoming a major hindrance to university admission, some elite schools are offering alternative overseas curricula to give students the option of avoiding the DSE exam.

At the Diocesan Girls’ School admissions talk in September, principal Stella Lau Kun Lai-kuen told parents they would introduce a class for GCE A-level Chinese in the coming academic year.

“Every year, there are students who worry that they will flunk Chinese and leave earlier to study overseas,” she says. “Such students find Chinese very difficult as they [mainly] speak English at home.”

Lau noted that in the past three years, a number of otherwise excellent students could not enter local universities because they failed HKDSE Chinese.

“Not all families can afford to send their children to study overseas so we applied to the Education Bureau to introduce A-level [Chinese].”

Other direct subsidy scheme (DSS) schools have taken similar measures to offer International Baccalaureate or A-level Chinese alongside HKDSE. Education Bureau figures show that of the city’s 61 DSS schools, seven already provide the alternative Chinese programmes (government schools are restricted to the local curriculum, but DSS schools have greater autonomy).

Janet Hung Chau-yin, who teaches Chinese at St Paul’s Co-educational College, says the Chinese exams under international curriculums are far less demanding.

For instance, reading comprehension for IB Chinese involves questions on one passage of text, and students are given selected or “model” texts that set the parameters for revision.

But for HKDSE Chinese, students are tested on their comprehension of two pieces of contemporary writing and a passage from the classics or an ancient text. The latter may be drawn from any period in Chinese civilisation, which makes it very difficult for students to focus their studies. By comparison, Hung says, when she was studying for her exams revision was limited to 26 pieces of model text.

“By doing away with model texts, the government is striving for the ideal. Instead of confining study to fixed texts, they want to nurture students’ interest and all-round proficiency in Chinese. But in reality, when students are faced with no fixed curriculum, they see Chinese as a subject that requires no revision at all.”

Moreover, exam questions are framed in such a way that they stump experienced teachers like Hung.

“I have been teaching Chinese for 18 years … but some multiple choice questions in the reading comprehension are difficult to answer. When I tried doing them, I didn’t know which was the correct answer,” she says. “I can only teach students to rule out the incorrect ones when handling such questions.”

Even authors of passages selected for reading comprehension may not be able to answer correctly.

In 2013, Chinese media put the exam questions to Taiwanese writer Zhang Xiaofeng and Hong Kong author Wong Kwok-pun, whose works were used to test students’ reading comprehension.

Wong’s article satirised people’s habit of making careless pledges, and students were asked to identify the writing style that he adopted in the piece: contrast, association, echoing and progressive layering.

At the time, Wong told reporters: “When I wrote it, I didn’t think about that ... and I might use all four writing methods when writing it.”

With Zhang’s article, students were asked to pick which of four answers best described the tone of two highlighted sentences. But the Taiwan writer said she couldn’t choose the right answer even though the question referred to her own article: “Everybody has their own interpretation.”

Hung says students must start laying a strong foundation in Chinese early if they are to cope with DSE Chinese. Some schools do not begin teaching ancient texts until Form Four, but at St Paul’s exposure to classical Chinese starts in Form One.

Even so, every year there are a couple of St Paul’s students who opt to take IB Chinese instead – typically those who have not grown up with the local education system, Hung says.

Education consultants say tough requirements for HKDSE have prompted many wealthy parents to send their children abroad for secondary education to boost their chances of achieving better exam results and, in turn, secure a place in top degree programmes in Hong Kong.

Such an educational detour is possible because bigger quotas are being set aside for Hongkongers with exam qualifications from abroad.

Students with DSE face fierce competition to secure one of 14,600 publicly funded degree places allocated through the centralised Joint University Programmes Admissions System (Jupas). However, there is no cap on the non-Jupas intake, which includes students with British A-levels.

Of the 51 local students admitted into Hong Kong University’s architecture programme in 2012, for instance, 17 were non-Jupas applicants.

Non-Jupas students also account for 20 per cent or more of the intake in medicine at HKU and Chinese University, and the latter’s law programme.

It seems far easier to achieve the high scores necessary for admission into elite degree programmes if you sit for overseas exams.

Every year, A* and A grades are awarded to 25 per cent of candidates sitting for the British A-levels. In Hong Kong, however, just 10 per cent of students manage to achieve the top scores of 5 and higher in 10 subjects.

Such statistics prompted Anson Lo See-chai to sit for A-levels in Britain after completing Form Five in Hong Kong.

She took four subjects at A-level, achieved two A*s and two As. Through the non-Jupas intake, those results were sufficient to secure her a place in the actuarial programme at Chinese University.

“Actuarial science is an elite programme. I wouldn’t have got in if I took the HKDSE,” says Lo, now in the third year of her studies:

“My Chinese was pretty bad when I was studying in a Sha Tin DSS school. I didn’t have any interest; the archaic texts have no relevance to modern daily life but I had to study that for two years for my A-levels. Although it took me another year to complete secondary school, my overseas experience was worthwhile as it exposed me to an independent style of learning.”

Sarah Yiu Sze-yue of GRTalent Consulting says the company has observed a rising trend of Hong Kong students heading overseas for their senior secondary education.

“Many of our clientsdo not like the HKDSE system. The curriculum is still new and some parents think teachers are not trained well enough to teach the curriculum. It is usually Chinese and liberal studies that create the most difficulties for students.”

Students who don’t take the DSE either switch to international schools or go overseas for senior secondary education, Yiu says.

“They want to take professional degrees like law and medicine at local universities. Because only students with really good exam results are admitted, they must plan their move to study overseas study at least a few years in advance.”

An Education Bureau spokesman says publicly funded tertiary institutions are free to set their own admissions policy.

“On the principles of fairness and merit-based selection, each institution will work out its admission policy and criteria for different programmes to assess students’ applications submitted through the Jupas and non-Jupas routes.

“Neither the Government nor the University Grants Committee would require institutions to specify a particular ratio of local students admitted through the Jupas and non-Jupas routes.”

But the legislator for the education sector, Ip Kin-yuen, argues that the phenomenon of wealthier students securing local university places through the non-Jupas intake will aggravate iniquity in the system.

“It’s unfair as only students from affluent backgrounds can afford to take exams overseas. Currently, lot of students in popular disciplines come from high-income families. Society will get the idea that non-Jupas students enjoy a privilege. The government should review the allocation system and consider setting a cap on non-Jupas students.”

Source: South China Morning Post

Edited by Elaine Yau


Too Many International School Places

Too Many International School Places

Some parents go to great lengths to get their children into a good international school in Hong Kong. Many put their children onto waiting lists years before they reach school age, and buy expensive debentures so their children would have a bigger chance of getting an interview or they could jump forward on the waiting list. According to Top Schools, an agent that helps parents with international school applications, debentures cost from HK$25,000 to HK$10 million for top international schools.

In 2012, the government predicted Hong Kong would be short of over 4,200 primary and secondary international school places by the 2016/17 school year. The Education Bureau (EDB) said 8.2 per cent of companies looking to hire overseas staff could not do so because there weren’t enough international school places in Hong Kong for their children.

To meet this projected shortage of international school places, the government has been allocating vacant school premises and greenfield sites for developing international schools, as well as providing interest-free loans for the construction of international schools. For example, it granted a piece of land in Tseung Kwan O for HK$1,000 to Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong Limited in 2015 to build a new international school. The grant was controversial because one of the company’s directors is Executive Council member Bernard Chan Chi-Sze.

However, Ruth Benny from Top Schools says there has never been a shortage of international school places. “There are always enough, now we have an oversupply,” she says.

2015 figures from the English School Foundation (ESF) show that there is an excess of international school places in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories.

Benny says there is a perceived shortage because most of the parents are fighting to get their children into ‘first-tier’ international schools. These schools are preferred because of their good reputation, convenient locations and diversified nationalities of the students.

Because of the demand for places in these ‘first-tier’ schools, they are able to charge high fees. Government figures show that tuition fees in 28 of the 80 international schools in Hong Kong cost over HK$150,000 for one year.

The high schools fees and money from debentures enable these schools to expand their campuses and improve their facilities, while ‘second-tier’ schools continue to have fewer resources for students who cannot afford the high fees. Currently, the government does not regulate additional fees that international schools charge. A spokesperson of the EDB says the debenture schemes are a common fundraising tactic among international schools, which “allow parents to join voluntarily”. The EDB says it requests schools to consult parents and other stakeholders before implementing these schemes, “with a view to reaching a consensus” on arrangement details such as transfer and redeem policy, and the related administrative fees.

Despite the difficulties of getting into a top international school, the number of local students entering international schools has been soaring in recent years. Figures provided by the English School Foundation (ESF) show that the percentage of students who hold Hong Kong passports in ESF primary and secondary schools has risen from 8 per cent in 2009-10 to 26.1 per cent in 2016-17.

In a new study on the provision of international school places in Hong Kong released in February this year, the Education Bureau (EDB) projected the overall demand for international secondary school places from local students would increase by 105 per cent, from 2,931 in 2015/16 to 6,012 in 2022/23. Meanwhile, the number of non-local students is projected to only increase by 5 per cent, from 13,599 in 2015/16 to 14,312 in 2022/23.

The EDB requires that at least 70 per cent of students at international schools be from outside of Hong Kong. The projected increase of local students may disrupt this requirement, but an EDB spokesperson said it does not have immediate plans to adjust the current student mix requirement, and the whole international school sector should work “mainly to meet the demand for non-local families living in Hong Kong or coming to Hong Kong for work or investment.”

Virginia Wilson, the Chief Executive of the Child Development Centre of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and a former board member of the English Schools Foundation (ESF) explains how parents’ disappointment in the local education system has created an increasing demand for international school places from local families.

Graidey Lo, is a local Year 12 Renaissance School student who transferred from a local school to the ESF school at the beginning of this school year. She said she switched to an international school because the curriculum and the learning atmosphere was more suitable for her.

“I feel like it [the local DSE curriculum] is a little bit too restrictive for me and IB (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) is all about being independent, and I feel like changing into an international school will be giving me more freedom,” Lo says.

EJ Anonuevo, a Year 13 student who had studied in a local boys’ school for five years before transferring to an international school two years ago, also prefers his current school.“Here, it’s a lot more independent [how we study],” he says.

Source: Varsity, CUHK

Reporters: Eric Park, Nancy Mak, Rivers Zhang

Edited by Rubie Fan, Howard Yang


This year’s HKDSE Chinese exam was a lively “paper of death”

This year’s HKDSE Chinese exam was a lively “paper of death”

Teachers agree that this year’s HKDSE Chinese exam was far more emotive and vibrant than they have been before

This year’s HKDSE Chinese exam, also known as “the paper of death”, was about people’s daily activities and life experiences, teacher and students revealed.

In the Chinese writing exam (Paper 2), students had to choose one out of three questions to answer, and they had to write at least 650 words in 90 minutes. Q1 asked students to use: “After that, the knot in my heart was finally unravelled” – which means that a person felt like they could finally breathe again – as part of a story. Q2 asked them to use the word “Footprint” as a title. The last question was given as a statement about how some say anger can be a bad thing, and some say it can be good. It then asked candidates to share their views using “Talk About Anger” as their title.

Secondary school Chinese Language teacher Simon Man says Q1 is about narrative and descriptive writing.

“I think most students chose this question as it’s easier, but they need to be aware of how to write the content. About 60 per cent of the writing should be about events which ‘made them breathe again’, and the rest should be about how they felt afterwards. They also have to clearly write about what their inner struggles were and how they can be resolved,” said Man.

Man said Q2 tested students’ ability to improvise and imagine. “Q2 is a typical Chinese literature question. Students had to use their feelings or personal experiences to show the figurative meanings of ‘footprint’. They could have talked about their father’s footprints, the ‘footprint’ of their growth, or a historical footprint. Their language needs to be creative and descriptive if they want to score highly.”

A Form Six student surnamed Yu chose Q2 because it’s about life experiences.

“The question does not have a fixed genre. It allowed us to write a creative and thought-provoking piece,” she tells Young Post.

Q3 was fairly straightforward, Man said. “For an argumentative essay like this, students could discuss whether anger is good or bad. But a better answer would have seen students talk about the many levels of anger and their impact.”

The Chinese reading exam (Paper 1) consisted of one modern text and one classical Chinese passage. The contemporary text used running as a metaphor for life, and the classical passage was about how you can find self-reflection in a mirror.

Q2 asked about literary devices such as metaphor, punctuation and exaggeration, which has also been seen in previous years. The question, a secondary school Chinese Language teacher Jenny Lee said, tested students on their knowledge of how these devices function and make an impact. Q2(ii) asked students why the writer used a quotation for the phrase “to throw behind myself”. Ben Fung, a Chinese Language tutor from King’s Glory Educational Centre, said that, “Students should ask themselves whether the quotation had another meaning. The surface meaning conveys the writer’s hair was thrown behind her head, but it actually meant the runner felt free from her troubles,” Fung said.

Q7 asked candidates to describe the writer’s performance as a runner. “Students cannot copy the exact wording from the passage. No marks will be awarded if they do so. Students should have read the entire text and then used their own words to summarise what the passage is talking about,” said Lee.

Lee says some students may have had difficulty answering Q9. The question gives a sentence: “Many people are dissatisfied and frustrated with this world. I will ‘continue to run and enjoy the peace’.” It asked students if these words can be replaced by “understand the peace from running on the track”.

Fung said the “continue to run and enjoy the peace” may be a better option because running, like understanding an idea, needs a long time to process.

Q21 is about the classical text and contains another classical passage, and asked students what was similar in both texts. Lee said both texts implied that some people who don’t like their own appearances blame others or other things (like a mirror) for not reflecting what they want.

Form Six student Alan Kan Yik-fai said this year’s contemporary text was very long compared to previous years’. He said he barely finished all questions in the time given.

Source: South China Morning Post

Edited by Ginny Wong




Students in ‘backward Hong Kong’ facing exam stress because they don’t know how to use a radio, survey reveals

Source: South China Morning Post

Most teenagers in the final year of secondary school in Hong Kong have never used a radio before – and it is leaving them potentially tuned out ahead of some important exams.

Youth New World group, a non-profit organisation that serves students and teenagers from low-income families, interviewed 939 candidates sitting for their Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education from March to May.

It found nearly 60 per cent had never used a radio, and more than 50 per cent feared unfamiliarity with radios would lead to problems during the listening parts of their university entrance exam.

The group urged the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority to stop using radios for the Chinese and English language papers, and replace them with a more updated version.

“Even though the school will allow us time before the listening part to familiarise ourselves with the radio, I still don’t think that can ease my concern,” Circle Wai Ka-yuen, 17, said.

“I don’t usually listen to the radio so I am unaware of how it works. This is a technical matter and not the test takers’ problem, so it’s kind of unfair.”

The students are also more likely to choose a more expensive radio, Wai said, believing cost would equate to quality.

“I don’t know how to differentiate the models when picking one for the exam. The prices range from HK$20 to HK$300, but of course we wouldn’t get a cheap one and risk not having it work properly,” she said.

The study also found only 21.9 per cent of students were aware of the penalty if the radio batteries ran out, or if they forgot their headphones.