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Hong Kong English test limiting opportunities for young people, study suggests

20 October 2021

A new study by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) alumnus Chi Lai Tsang and IOE academic Dr Talia Isaacs, has found that the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) English test could be reinforcing social inequalities for thousands of young people.

Person writing in notebook whilst studying. Image: Gabby K via Pexels

The HKDSE English test is taken by over 60,000 Hong Kong secondary students each year and is important in determining test-takers’ educational and career prospects. In 2012, HKDSE-English adopted a new graded approach, allowing test-takers to choose between easier and more difficult sections of the test for both reading, and listening-integrated skills. The idea behind this is to grant test-takers the freedom to select examination sections that best match their ability, thereby efficiently testing candidates at different ability levels.

The study, which draws on data from Chi Lai Tsang’s award-winning MA Applied Linguistics dissertation, saw the researchers find out more about students’ views on the graded approach and the different factors that affected their attitudes and practices working towards the exam. The researchers collected qualitative data from focus groups of 12 Hong Kong secondary school students and quantitative data from a questionnaire to 150 students that built on findings from the focus groups.

Key themes emerged from this data, including:

  • informal training for the preferred-HKDSE-English section outside the classroom
  • selective attention in English language learning
  • intensive drills relating to the preferred section
  • enrolment in private tutorial classes targeting the preferred section

The researchers found that test takers would react differently to the exam due to a range of factors, including their language proficiency, exam knowledge, teachers’ evaluations, experience at private tutorial schools, peer influence, influence of personal contacts, and socio-educational factors.

The researchers highlight that test-takers’ learning is geared toward a particular section of the test, resulting in narrowing of the curriculum, for example by teaching to the test, where test-takers solely pay attention to section-relevant content.

Expanding on the implications of this testing approach, Chi Lai Tsang said:

“Although allowing test-takers to select which level they take would seem to give them choice, this can actually be disempowering. For example, academically stronger schools could pressure students into taking the more difficult section because this is better for the school, and vice versa at academically weaker schools, without taking into account what is most beneficial for students based on their individual capabilities. This could result in reinforcing the power imbalance of Hong Kong’s educational system, potentially perpetuating social inequalities and limiting opportunities for young people.

“We argue for the adoption of fairer, more scientific ways to inform test-takers’ decision-making that take into account individual differences and seek to empower, rather than subjugate, test-takers’ voices.”

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Image: Gabby K via Pexels