Letters from leaders of Hong Kong's political parties and government departments.
Back in 2015, when some parents were discussing online the pressure of study on their children, they were enthusiastically joined by tens of thousands of other parents. They pointed an accusing finger at the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), identifying it as the culprit responsible for endless drills of assessment questions devoid of learning purposes. Indeed, the education sector has, continuously over the years, pointed out the source of problems. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) has issued quite a number of survey and investigation reports on this. However, Education Bureau (EDB) has all along refused to squarely face the issue. Even though there were outrage and joint petitions by tens of thousands of teachers and parents against Primary 3 TSA, the then Secretary for Education Eddie NG Hak-kim simply responded perfunctorily. Eventually, the only thing that emerged was a ‘pilot study’ in which 50 schools were asked to take part. The study was, through the use of euphemistic language, extended to all primary schools in Hong Kong in the following year. Whilst referred to as a study, it was actually compulsory in nature. And TSA was given a new name: Basic Competency Assessments (BCA) which does not bring about any new meaning. There was a spark of hope for our junior primary students when Carrie Lam, in her capacity as a candidate in the Chief Executive election, clearly promised in her election platform to ‘shelve Primary 3 TSA before the completion of a comprehensive review of the relevant policy’. Recently, however, there have been reports that the Government will not shelve Primary 3 TSA and that we shall see a comprehensive resumption of it. In other words, TSA is expected to come back and haunt us again! The Teachers’ Union immediately collected the views of frontline teachers through a survey, the findings of which have recently been published. I would like to share with our audiences a few salient points. Recognising the need to eliminate incentives for drills, EDB and the so-called TSA Review Committee introduced a few measures including ‘adjusting the types of questions’, ‘adjusting the level of difficulty’ and ‘adjusting the format of reporting by schools’. These are invariably changes of an inconsequential nature. Findings from the PTU survey reveal that only 10% of our primary school teachers believe that these three measures can effectively solve the problem of drills. In the past two years, EDB claims that through adjustments to the types of questions, to the level of difficulty and to the format of reporting by schools, incentives for drills have been successfully eliminated. Responses from teachers to questionnaire surveys conducted by PTU in the past two years invariably reflect the persistence of drills and supplementary classes. According to the latest survey, which was conducted even before any EDB announcements about the fate of Primary 3 TSA for the current academic year, as many as 40% of our teachers have already been preparing materials for drills and supplementary classes. This robustly refutes EDB’s claim of having successfully eliminated incentives for drills and which clearly shows that such a claim of EDB’s is nothing but nonsense bordering on ‘burying one’s head in the sand’! If EDB insists on a comprehensive resumption of Primary 3 TSA, the situation of drills will, according to 80% of our teachers, get even more serious. Isn’t the Government able to see this? Even more alarming is that as many as 90% of our teachers believe, according to the survey, that the entire process of teaching and learning (including homework and tests) in our schools have to pander to the types of questions and format of TSA. Whilst materials and activities do not necessarily bear the TSA label, the effect of TSA has already deeply permeated every single aspect of our daily teaching and learning. Having TSA drills regularly on a daily basis does not only affect the progress of teaching and the design of curricula and generate mechanical drills, but it also, more importantly, distorts the principles of education. Teachers teach to the test. Students learn for the test. As a result, students’ motivation and interest are stifled. This has an extremely grave negative impact on our education. When responding to our survey, quite a number of teachers offered comments on how TSA has affected teaching and learning and how it has hampered students’ normal process of learning. I would like to share with you two relatively short and self-contained comments. A teacher writes, ‘In my school, drills have extended down to Primary 1. On top of supplementary exercises, my school has designed, as an exercise for our young kids, a booklet on the practice of speaking. As a result, Primary 1 students are subjected to considerable academic pressure. I hope that TSA can be abolished so that our kids can once again have a splendid childhood!’ Another teacher writes, ‘For schools above basic competence, it is a waste of time to do exercises the types of which are out of tune with those of the school. Not only does this add pressure on students, it also wastes staff resources which can otherwise be better deployed. The party benefiting most from such an anomaly is the publisher. For schools below the required standard, students are not even able to handle their own curriculum. Those who are academically weak have to, for the sake of assessment, know the scope of assessment and the format of assessment. As a responsible school, it is impossible for us not to drill students with exercises.’ That normal teaching in schools is hampered by mechanical drills, that primary school kids are already subjected to examination-orientated education and that education principles are distorted are some of the chain reactions brought about by TSA. Surveys have robustly established that the core problems of TSA have not yet been solved and that teachers and parents are full of doubts and worries about a comprehensive resumption of TSA. If the Government decides on an immediate resumption of it, not only will this decision be detrimental to teachers and students, it will inevitably provoke dissatisfaction in the education sector and among the parents. I hope that Chief Executive Carrie LAM can seriously listen to the views of different stake-holders and seriously review the core problems of TSA as well as the entire culture of drills so that Hong Kong’s education can return to its proper track.