By Kelvin Lee

Recent suicide cases among primary and secondary students have drawn fresh scrutiny to Hong Kong’s education system. Parent groups pressed for the removal of Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), a standardized test aimed at evaluating school performance, dubbing the exam a major source of stress and anxiety among students.

TSA campaign
Lawmakers and parents at Thursday’s anti-TSA campaign event. Photo: Lau Siu-lai, via Facebook.

The Education Bureau disagrees, and fought tooth and nail for the survival of the exam. It went as far as to change the name of the exam from TSA to Basic Competency Assessments (BCA), even after then-Chief-Executive-elect Carrie Lam signalled her intention to suspend the exam.

While the outrage of parents is understandable, perhaps even justified, the Education Bureau’s strong desire to monitor school performance is in fact, quite justifiable. After all, as the regulatory body that oversees education institutions, it is responsible for ensuring school quality.

TSA/BCA currently evaluates school performance by measuring student academic proficiency. Much like any other public examination in Hong Kong, this means looking at the absolute score a student achieves in the exam, and absolute score alone. If the score passes a threshold set by the Bureau, the student is deemed “proficient”. If enough students hit “proficient”, the school is deemed “proficient”.

However, students don’t all start with the same level of academic mastery. In other words, the exam is not a level playing field. It is impossible for educators to set a one-size-fit-all proficiency target that is fair – rigorous enough for everyone, yet attainable enough for everyone.

A uniform threshold almost guarantees that some will find it not rigorous enough, while others will find it not attainable enough. This means: some will struggle with all their might, while some, as my high school teacher would say, cruise through the exam.

tsa pressure exam students test
File photo: Labour Party.

But more troublingly is how this “proficiency gap” came to be. Citing Albert Shanker Institute, The 74’s Matt Barnum noted that only 20% of “variation in student achievement is explained by differences in schools”, and that “out-of-school factors, like poverty”, have a “significant effect on learning”.

Further exacerbating this effect is the failings of our education system. Most so-called elite schools, which were originally public, made the switch to the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS). This has led to the blanket exclusion of poor kids from elite schools.

With endowment funds of some of these semi-private DSS schools hitting more than HK$30 million, one can only imagine the uphill battle to keep up with the proficiency target for schools with less resources and more disadvantaged kids, and feel pity for the students who have fallen victim to a system stacked against them.

With so many factors affecting a student’s abilities, the report concludes, implementing a proficiency-based exam will only “reward schools for the students they take in”, but not how they teach.

“Impact of TSA-related stress on our bodies” poster and items commemorating students who ended their lives. Photo: Parents United of Hong Kong.

Perhaps it is time for the Bureau to rethink its approach to school performance exams.

The ‘growth’ approach

Educators have long debated the “how” in evaluating school performance, and according to Brookings Institute, there is a “growing consensus” among educators that an approach which measures student academic growth is more appropriate.

One of the reasons is because it improves the “proficiency gap”. By setting rigorous and “long-range” goals that span through multiple school years, the American Institute of Research found that teachers can bring “students who perform far below proficiency to grade level”. According to the institute this might even close the “achievement gap” between rich and poor kids.

But perhaps the most convincing argument for a growth-based system is its ability to recognise that the definition of a “rigorous yet attainable” proficiency level varies from student to student.

In a growth-based system, a teacher does not have to force students to do an unreasonable amount of exam drilling exercises, just to make sure students hit that arbitrary but all-important proficiency target. With a system that “recognizes teachers’ efforts with all students”, a teacher can set “a realistic learning goal for all students”.

no tsa
A sign rejecting the TSA exam during the 2017 July 1 rally. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Indeed, there are drawbacks to growth-based school performance exams: the risk of not reaching “proficiency” at the end of the 12-year schooling comes to mind. That is why it is also necessary to have proficiency-based in-school and public exams, which Hong Kong is not short of, to serve as counterbalances to growth-based examinations.

While it is unfortunate that it took the tragedies of student suicide to bring renewed attention to pressures students face in school, a closer examination behind the causes of these pressures must continue. Changing a defective examination system should only be the first step.

Kelvin Lee is a business student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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