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