To test or not to test? That’s not the question of TSA

Public fury over P3 TSA is symptomatic of the irredeemable ‘culture of fear’ that grips Hong Kong people in the age of anxiety.

(This article was originally published in HKFP on 12 February 2017)

Asking pupils as young as six to drill test prep till midnight obviously perverts the purpose of education, and even amounts to child abuse. However, the Education Bureau (EDB) has no intention to bin the much-criticised Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) at Primary 3 (aged 9-10). Parents, teachers, pupils and politicians are convulsing again.

Starting in this year, the test will be clothed under a new name called the Basic Competency Assessment (BCA) Research Study. Specific measures include: (1) improving assessment papers and question design, (2) ameliorating 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 lofty visions a gesture of goodwill that leads 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, which was finally rolled out on Monday, also expresses the same determination – ‘to abolish all TSA/BCA tests to arrest the practice of intensive drilling’. Reform policies in the past have devoted enormous energy to the doomed task of wiping out the undesirable culture of drilling and spoon-feeding in Hong Kong schools. It is a doomed task because, as history shows, the more we battle against it, the more ineluctable it becomes.

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) (a test equivalent to 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, whilst 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 universally morphed into the ‘drill and kill’ practices. Teaching to the test was the norm of classroom learning. It was not until 2000 did the government finally abolish 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 high-stake tests are already history and we now have the HKDSE as the only high-stakes public exam, shouldn’t we celebrate and stop whinging on about this policy?

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 actions. It is the rampant ‘culture of fear’, as the British sociologist Frank Furedi argues, that saturates all aspects of our education system, to an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

The only conceivable motivation to drill pupils for TSA is hidden in the Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) System. Since the academic year of 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 in the process of school selection. The allocation band is a complex equation of 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 his/her own 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, to avoid the impact of a lazy pupil’s result upon the entire group, let’s drill them all, and start drilling them as early as possible. Results of the TSA are not related to the school allocation mechanism, but we’d better train them up with test-tackling skills early (as a warm-up exercise) 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 thousand-year-old 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 fears. Parents are living in the apprehension that their children will ‘lose at the starting line’. What should be done 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 may quail at the demographic time tomb, 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: well, after all, a benchmark score is only an arbitrary number.

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