SCMP Saturday, May 20, 2000


Commission gamble on fewer exams may flounder

Examinations have always been a necessary evil. They are an indispensable tool for assessing students' performance, and in the process exert heavy psychological pressure, not just on the youngsters but also their parents. Some people love exams . . . many more hate them.

During my school days, I had to sit through various public exams at the primary, secondary and pre-university levels just as students do now. Exam scores have a direct bearing on students' futures. However, because students, parents and the public in general appear to be far less tolerant of exams than before, the Education Commission has put forward a so-called "through road" concept, by which students would attend a school close to home and continue through to secondary school there. Only one high school or pre-university exam would be retained.

The major objection to the commission's proposed reform package has centred around the idea for fewer exams. Those opposed to the proposal argue that it would be unfair to decide a student's future on the basis of just one open exam. This, they warn, would also bog down the elite schools. Without exams, parents have nothing to rely on to differentiate the elite schools.

Exams can therefore help parents pick the best schools for their children. In the absence of exams, outstanding students would also be deprived of a channel of social mobility. Exams offer students a chance to excel.

On the other hand, students and parents can be trapped in a prolonged state of anxiety. This can jeopardise family relationships. Some may never recover from the psychological trauma. The debate on whether to do away with exams is never-ending. The problem arises from how those concerned take and prepare for the exams.

There are fewer public exams in countries such as Canada and the United States. Most students only need to sit for internal school tests until they take the university entrance exam.

Hong Kong people consider exams a shortcut to a bright career. The competitive nature of exams will probably, therefore, never be reduced. Parents with high expectations of their children will not give up pushing. Many of those who maintain that they want their kids to have a less structured education have already secured places in elite schools.

The proposal to lessen students' exam pressure may become the Achilles heel of the commission's reform package. The panel is obviously fighting an uphill battle in this regard.

Commission chairman Antony Leung Kam-chung and members Cheng Kai-ming and Tai Hay-lap have explained many times that the proposed reforms would result in more elite schools across the districts.

Parents and principals, however, remain unconvinced. They are worried that the existing elite schools would lose their sense of purpose, once their students no longer had so many public exams to compete in.