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Dr C S Tong (Secretary General of HKEAA)
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Dr C S Tong (Secretary General of HKEAA)

As the first Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) Examination approaches, pressure's building up. HKUST LINK interviewed Dr. Tong Chong-sze, Secretary General of Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. He addressed some of the major concerns that parents, teachers and students have on the DSE Examination.

Tong: Dr Tong Chong-sze 

           (Secretary General, HKEAA)

Q: What do you consider as the most significant difference between the old and  new academic structure?

Tong: Students of the old curriculum need to sit for two public examinations (HKCEE and A-Level) in less than two years before entering university. They would spend most of the time preparing for the exams. The new curriculum combines the two exams into one, relieving students much of the exam stress and freeing up more time on learning.

One of the key objectives of the education reform is to ignite students' interest in learning and encourage diversity. Students may choose any subjects they are interested in from 20 electives and a pool of applied learning and language subjects. This has replaced the traditional streaming of arts, science, business groups, allowing greater flexibility (with over 1,000 course combinations) and catering students' varied interests, needs and abilities.

Q: How is the DSE examination and assessment different from before?

Tong: The most significant differences are School-Based Assessment (SBA) and Independent Enquiry Study (IES). They are an integral part of learning.  SBA is a more comprehensive assessment of students' academic performance which could not be truly reflected in an one-off public examination.

Q: Many students want to know if taking more elective subjects would give them comparative advantage. Is it so?

Tong: If a student really wants choose more (than 2) elective subjects and he/she is confident that additional coursework is not a problem, they are of course encouraged to do so. But some may find the additional work demanding. It may drain their learning interests and reflect negatively on their performance. Then it's just not worth it.

The entry requirement of many local universities is 4 core subjects plus 1 or 2 elective subjects. Additional elective(s) does not place students in a more favorable position - unless they do extremely well in all subjects, then it may become a tie-breaker. You just don't want to have more electives but with bad results.

Q: People have different opinions about the education reform and the new secondary school curriculum. What is your view?

Tong: The education reform is heading in the right direction and the community has reached consensus. We should work hard to achieve the objectives. It is natural to have different opinions. Just as tiny flaws are inevitable for any reform of such scale. We understand that SBA and IES have increased the workload of schools and teachers. But we also know that teachers generally recognize the benefits – address students' different learning needs, enhance their independent thinking ability and flexibility.

Q: Some students are concerned that Liberal Studies (LS) does not have model answers and they do not know how to prepare for the exam. 

Tong: I read a report some time ago. A DSE student said he's worried that he might not know how to answer the questions at the Liberal Studies exam because there is no model answer. He was afraid he might fail the subject, jeopardizing his chance of getting into college. I tried to imagine as if I were still Academic Registrar of the Baptist University. Say there came in two applicants, one worries about not having model answers or past papers for him to drill on. Another said not having model answers gives him the freedom to develop his own answers. Which one should get the offer?

This is a fast-changing world. Adaptation to changes is a basic survival skill. Hong Kong's new curriculum and the DSE exam is a challenge. Students need to learn and adapt. We earnestly wish they would become flexible learners and independent thinkers and they would embrace any challenges they may encounter in life. This is the part of the reform and I found most exciting.

Q: One of the major concerns of the first batch of students to sit for the DSE Exam in 2012 is that competition for university places is greater than before. Is this true?

Tong: Actual figures tell us otherwise. Subsidized university places will be increased by 500 to 15,000 in 2012; the first batch of DSE candidates will not have repeaters to compete with them; they do not have to compete with Early Admission Scheme awardees either, as it will be canceled in 2012. There are the associate degrees and self-financed university post-secondary programs, both AL and DSE students are in fact provided with more opportunities for further studies. It is actually a less competitive landscape.

Q: Is the HKDSE qualification internationally recognized?

Tong: The Education Bureau and colleagues from the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority started to introduce Hong Kong's education reform and promote recognition of HKDSE to international agencies, overseas universities very early. Many world renowned institutes) have indicated their acceptance of students with HKDSE qualifications. Australia assesses HKDSE as comparable to Australian Senior High School Certificate. UK's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) will benchmark all of the 24 subjects of DSE with GCE A-level and HKDSE has been included in the UCAS Tariff. UK universities are recognizing HKDSE for direct entry to undergraduate courses which means students with HKDSE qualifications pursuing a (3-year) degree in the UK will graduate one year earlier that their HK classmates who choose to study at local universities' 4-year degree programs. And more Canadian institutes recognized HKDSE than HK A-Level.

Editor’s note: Over 100 overseas universities and colleges (including Oxford, Cambridge and Yale) and educational agencies (Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.) have indicated their recognition of HKDSE qualification


Q: As the Secretary General of HKEAA, what would you consider as a success for the first HKDSE Examination?

Tong: A smooth and orderly examination process is what I call a "success". My colleagues and I are doing everything possible to ensure a smooth examination. But this is a huge operation involving 75,000 candidates, various departments and staff. I'd still call it a success if there were tiny flaws. And I sincerely wish candidates, teachers and the public will have reasonable expectations. We are doing our best. We are open to ideas and we will continue to improve.

Q: When you took up the office in April, 2011, Hong Kong's education reform was in full swing, the first DSE exam would be held in less than a year. What prompted you?

Tong: This is a comprehensive, gigantic education reform with far-reaching impact. I asked myself then if I were to tell my children ten years from now that I once had the opportunity to play a role (and not a small one) in Hong Kong's education reform, but I lack the courage take up the challenge, what will they think? If I tell them instead that I took the job and contributed my abilities, I am sure it will be far more motivational and encouraging. I wish they will be inspired to embrace challenges and try to create a rich and colorful life.

Q: Your daughter will take DSE exam in 2013, how would you help her to prepare?

Tong: My daughter asked for my opinion when she was choosing electives. She thought about taking the Extended Maths Module(EMM). I am a Mathematician so I was very pleased to hear that. Besides, she will have a wider range of degree programs she could choose from. I thought about encouraging her to take EMM but then decided to let her make her own decision. My daughter eventually chose three elective subjects, without EMM.

I always believe cultivating interest is the most important part of education. Students must enjoy learning before they could do well. What we have to do is to show them our support, love and care.

Q: How would you advice students who will sit for DSE soon? And their parents too?

Tong: HKDSE is just a part in life. I'd suggest students and parents to take it easy. Examination results are a reference of your study. It serves to help students decide their next step and there are multiple pathways for them to develop their potential. My advice for parents is to show students support and encouragement. Let them know you'll love them always, no matter what exam results they get.

To familiarise teachers and candidates with the format and requirements of the HKDSE Examination, the HKEAA produces practice papers for 24 New Senior Secondary subjects and deliver them to schools. HKEAA website: also has additional sample questions for the reference of teachers and candidates.

HKDSE App allows instant access to useful information about the examination: