Asking pupils as young as six to work on pre-test drills until midnight obviously perverts the purpose of education, and even amounts to child abuse. However, the Education Bureau has no intention of binning the much-criticised Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) at Primary 3, for students aged 9-10. Parents, teachers, pupils and politicians are convulsing again.

eddie ng
Secretary for Education Eddie Ng. File photo: GovHK.

Starting this year, the test will be shrouded in a new name: the Basic Competency Assessment (BCA) Research Study. Specific new features include: (1) improved assessment papers and question design, (2) better school reports, (3) strengthening diversified professional support measures, and (4) conducting a questionnaire survey on pupils’ learning attitude and motivation.

These initiatives, the government argue, will effectively mitigate the harmful effects of the test, thus “removing the incentives for over-drilling caused by TSA; alleviating stakeholders’ concerns about the stakes involved; and deepening mutual trust among schools, parents and stakeholders to enhance assessment literacy.”

Hold on. Aren’t these the sort of lofty visions that led to the birth of TSA at the very beginning? Let’s dust off the reform proposal submitted by the Education Commission in 2000 and see how familiar these words sound:

‘…the major function of assessment is help teachers and parents understand the learning, progress and needs of their students, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. …For this purpose, we propose to put in place Basic Competency Assessments in Chinese, English and Mathematics at various stages of basic education. …We also recommend to use multiple modes of assessment, …to minimise the amount of quantitative evaluation…Excessive dictations, mechanical drilling, tests and examinations should be avoided so that students would have more time to participate in useful learning activities.’ (p.46)

The last sentence still applies today, doesn’t it? Even John Tsang’s CE election platform, rolled out on Monday, expresses the same determination – “to abolish all TSA/BCA tests to arrest the practice of intensive drilling.”

Enormous energy has been devoted to the doomed task of wiping out drilling and spoon-feeding in Hong Kong schools. It is a doomed task because, as history shows, the more we battle against it, the worse it gets.


In 1978, the notorious Secondary School Entrance Examination at Primary 6 was abolished. It was replaced by the now defunct Hong Kong Academic Aptitude Test (HKAAT) (like the ’11-plus’ in the UK) that governs admission to secondary school.

This standardised test was warmly welcomed at the beginning. It measures P6 pupils’ logical and quantitative reasoning skills, while test-takers were not required to regurgitate large chunks of information as in the previous exam.

However, as time went by, homework and learning activities in P5 and P6 across all schools morphed into “drill and kill” practices. Teaching to the test dominated the classroom. In 2000 the government finally abolished the aptitude test.

The Llewellyn Report of 1982 had expressed disapproval of the HKAAT and the sheer number of examinations in a pupil’s educational career. In the 1980s, the maximum number of public examinations a pupil went through could reach up to eight: the HKAAT, HKCEE, A-level, GCE (A and O Levels), and Higher Level exams.

‘The very frequency of examinations,” wrote Sir John Llewellyn, “is in itself disconcerting.” Now that these tests are history and we have the HKDSE as the only high-stakes public exam, shouldn’t we celebrate and stop whinging?

tsa concern group
The TSA concern group protesting against the examinations.

If TSA is a low-stakes standardised test that has nothing to do with secondary school places allocation, why do primary schools still drill their pupils? The deep roots of this drilling madness lie not in the design of tests or the lack of government action. It is the rampant “culture of fear”, as the British sociologist Frank Furedi argues, that saturates our education system.

The motivation to drill pupils for TSA is hidden in the Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) System. Since the academic year 2005/06, results of the Pre-Secondary One Hong Kong Attainment Test (Pre-S1 HKAT), which replaces the HKAAT, have been used for working out individual P6 pupils’ allocation bands for school selection.

The allocation band is the product of a complex equation involving a P6 pupil’s internal school results in P5 and P6, and the weighted scores through scaling the sampled results of Pre-S1 HKAT. In other words, a pupil’s performance in Pre-S1 HKAT doesn’t have a direct influence on the allocation, but it will have an indirect bearing on the entire cohort’s allocation results.

The government never publishes the scaling formula. So here comes the element of risk and uncertainty: as you never know which score will be selected for the sample, to avoid the impact of a lazy pupil’s result upon the entire group, let’s drill them all, and start as early as possible. Results of the TSA are not related to the school allocation mechanism, but we’d better train them with test-tackling skills early so that they will perform well in the Pre-S1 HKAT.

Controversy over the BCA/TSA just manifests our incapacity to control the uncontrollable. What if we abolish the TSA/BCA altogether? As I mentioned earlier, upending the culture of drilling through name change (from TSA to BCA) or ditching it right away from our system is a doomed task, because any systemic change will be accompanied by fear.

Parents fear that their children will “lose at the starting line.” How to calm ourselves down? Drill our kids. Teachers are worried about whether the TSA scores will tank compared with previous performance. The easy way is – drill our kids. School leaders quail at the demographic time bomb, budget cuts, and the risk of closure. What can be done to save the school? Well, drill our kids.

Drilling is somehow palatable to our belief that number is all that matters. It gives us a false sense of hope but fulfils our simplistic thirst for certainty. We all lie with scores somehow: after all, a benchmark score is only an arbitrary number.

Henry Kwok is a critical sociologist of education and policy studies. He used to work as a secondary school teacher and a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Languages at the Open University of Hong Kong. Although now residing in Australia where he is completing his PhD at Griffith University in Brisbane, he keeps a close eye on what is happening in Hong Kong. He graduated from the Universities of Hong Kong and Cambridge.