In less than six weeks, more than 45,000 secondary students in Hong Kong expect to sit their university entrance examinations. But as the deadly coronavirus continues to spread in the city, schools will be closed at least until March 16, and a big question mark hangs over the assessment schedule and arrangements.

The Education Bureau first announced a possible delay in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exam on February 6, saying the written tests – scheduled to begin on March 27 – could be postponed to late April. The announcement came two days after Hong Kong recorded the first death caused by Covid-19, which has killed over 2,000 people worldwide.

Students taking Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (DSE). Photo: HKEAA.

Last Thursday, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said the bureau had to consider the development of the epidemic, as well as the preparatory work of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), before deciding whether the HKDSE exams would go ahead as planned, or be pushed back to April 24.

“We maintain that we will make a final decision by the end of this month, to decide whether we will choose option A or option B,” Yeung said.

Nester Chik, a Form Six student at Sing Yin Secondary School, told HKFP that he thought the Education Bureau should have made the call earlier. He hoped the bureau would be more transparent in their decision-making process, as the uncertainty surrounding the assessment arrangement had caused candidates like himself to feel more stressed about the public exam.

The revision setup HKDSE candidate Nester Chik has at home. Photo: Nester Chik.

“I understand that [the exam arrangement] is a tricky issue to deal with, because both options are a bit unfair to this year’s candidates. But the Education Bureau’s delayed announcement reflects a low efficiency in their decision-making,” he said.

Chik went on to describe how his exam preparation was spoilt by the outbreak, as his mock assessment was cancelled. Instead, test papers were uploaded online and students were asked to complete them at home. Chik also followed the advice of the government to stay home and minimise social interaction amid the outbreak, but he found himself less motivated to do revision without the company of his friends.

“Before school was suspended, I could tell that my friends were all working hard for the public exam and that motivated me a lot. Right now, I know I have to study, but I just can’t find the motivation to do so,” he said.

Students in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

To compensate for not meeting in person, Chik and his friends decided to create an online study group on messaging platform WhatsApp. They set a time to tackle past exam papers together, go over their answers based on the marking scheme and compare their results. While this practice had worked well for Chik, he said it could only be applied to papers that come with model answers.

“We’ve been avoiding papers that don’t have model answers. We don’t know how to overcome this issue. If it wasn’t for the outbreak, we could easily take those papers to school and ask our teachers to grade them for us,” he said.

Similar to Chik, Toby Lai of Good Hope School did not do her mock assessment because her school was closed. She applied for other practice exams organised by tutorial centres, but those had been called off as well in view of the growing outbreak. Without doing any mock exam, as well as not knowing when the HKDSE will be held, Toby said it had been difficult for her to prepare for the exam properly.

“The Education Bureau’s decision will not come until the end of this month, which is rather late. Sometimes, I don’t know if I should carry on with my revision or not,” she said.

Two students in Hong Kong walk past a HKDSE examination centre. File photo: GovHK.

Another HKDSE candidate, Wesley Ng, who studies at Diocesan Boys’ School, agreed with Lai that the Education Bureau should make an announcement as soon as possible. He said the possible delay of the exam meant that students would be stressed for longer, and it could affect their post-exam travel plans.

“I wanted to get these exams over with and enjoy my graduation trip in late April or May. But right now I have to worry about my health during the outbreak, as well as my preparation for the exam. There has been a lot of pressure on the HKDSE candidates this year,” Ng said.

Apart from upsetting their travel plans, some students in Hong Kong fear that postponing the HKDSE exam could cost them a chance to study abroad. Fung of Good Hope School – who requested to be referred to by one name – is among those who had applied for universities in the United Kingdom through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). After submitting her application last month, she is waiting anxiously for interviews to be arranged as the epidemic spread.

The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. File photo: llee_wu, via Flickr.

She explained that, in previous years, many universities would send admission staff to Hong Kong to meet candidates in person. The outbreak had prevented some of them from coming to the city, and interviews might be conducted online instead. There is also a possibility that she will have to fly to the UK to meet the admission board.

“Everything is very uncertain now. I can only wait and see what they will arrange,” she said.

According to the Education Bureau’s notice issued last Thursday, the change in exam dates will delay the release of results from July 8 to July 15. Fung is worried that this delay might affect her ability to reply to her university offers on UCAS on time.

“I will be very disappointed if I can’t study abroad because the HKDSE gets pushed back or even cancelled,” she said. “I think the government has the responsibility to sort things out with UCAS on our behalf.”

HKDSE candidates in an examination hall. File photo: GovHK.

Danny Wong, a registered educational psychologist in Hong Kong, told HKFP that the epidemic has added a new layer of uncertainty to the already high-stress exam. He said with limited interaction with their teachers, tutors and peers, as well as an unclear exam timetable, the outbreak could take its toll on the candidates’ performance.

“The sense of uncertainty surrounding the epidemic and the exam is quite distressing. Depending on how stressed students are, it could affect their rest and thus lower their work efficiency,” Wong said.

“Many students also rely on external factors like the learning environment and their peers to be motivated to study. If they can’t find that motivation, they will end up spending less time on revision, which will directly affect their exam result,” he added.

Wong advised students to set a clear timetable and list out their daily tasks, so that they could restore a “sense of direction” in their revision. He also recommended teachers stay in touch with students online, and come up with revision strategies for different assessment arrangements.

“Ultimately, the most important thing is giving yourself some time to relax. The government has advised people to stay home, but I think students can judge whether or not they can go for a walk or a jog near home,” he said.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.