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Students’ anger after DSE English exam calls for reflection on HK’s education system

Written by April Zhang on Friday, 05 May 2023. Posted in Front Page

Students’ anger after DSE English exam calls for reflection on HK’s education system

One bizarre thing happened last month after Hong Kong DSE (Diploma of Secondary Education) English exam, which used some excerpts from the former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming in one reading section.

After the exam, many students went on to Michelle Obama’s social media account and left unseemly comments, blaming her for the exam being too difficult and for their own failures.

DSE is Hong Kong’s university entrance exam. DSE results determine whether or not students have an easy route to university. The higher the score, the better the chance for them to be admitted into a higher-ranking university.

The opposite is that students, who have failed in this important exam, will be upset. Unfortunately, Michelle Obama became an outlet for such students to vent their anger on.

The media coverage conveyed a message that that these students were immature and hopeless, commenting that their reaction was “extremely shameful” and they did not work on their reading skills before sitting for the exam. Cowardice was also implied because they only picked easy target. In 2019, a memoir by Clive James was featured in the exam with equally difficult questions but nobody complained. 

I agree that these students’ reaction was not something to be commended for and they should be more accountable for their own non-performances, but let’s not forget that they are the product of Hong Kong’s education system. 

As we sow, so will we reap.

In Hong Kong, test scores often outweigh other skills and interests. For their entire life up to now, these students have been taught that getting high marks in exams is important, getting high marks in DSE is particularly important. 

Also, DSE results often become a way for students to measure themselves as people.

Every year on the day when DSE results are published, there is extensive media coverage of those students who achieve perfect score in all subjects. They are portrayed as model students and have made their parents and teachers proud. Many of them have expressed a desire to become a doctor in the future so they can save people’s lives. They are not only good students, but also good people. 

Compared to these model students, students with not so good test results are never mentioned. They are just part of the overall statistics. If they do not get accepted by a university, the alternatives will be either to go to vocational schools or to get a job. Both are often seen as the last resort for academic failures. 

Under this circumstance, we have ground to criticise students’ negative reaction over their exam result when we have been emphasised its importance for so long. 

The direction is clear. 

If we don’t want students to overreact to their test results, we won’t put that much weight on tests. Instead, more attention is given to learning. 

Learning is more important than exams, and learning is more important than degrees. And the ability to learn is the most important of all.  

These students have a lot to learn. One thing on their to-learn-list should be how to handle disappointment and how to be more accountable for their own actions. And the sooner students learn, the better they will be. 

But, most Hong Kong students have had a well sheltered life. They have not been given opportunities to face hardships, and therefore do not know how to deal with it when life throws them one.

Therefore, if we want students to own themselves, we must provide that opportunities for them to do so.

About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and she enjoys teaching and interacting with students. She constantly explores new and interesting ways of teaching Chinese through creative and imaginative activities.

With her help, many students have achieved outstanding result, which has enriched their understanding about China and has significantly contributed to their work.