24 March 2019
A file picture shows school students doing their homework while sitting in a protest site during the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong last year. Photo: HKEJ
A file picture shows school students doing their homework while sitting in a protest site during the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong last year. Photo: HKEJ

Why the DSE writing test sends students into a daze

The writing exam for those pursuing a Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) in Hong Kong has often been criticized for being either too abstract or political. Students find it a bit too much, and with good reason.

This year’s test, which was conducted on Monday, has been no exception. That said, the examiners should be given credit for at least getting more creative in the questions.

Sample this material from the DSE Chinese-language exam that about 74,000 secondary school students had to take yesterday.

Write a 650-word article on one of the topics below:

1. “Dreams appear to be impractical but they are in fact meaningful”. Or alternately, “Dreams appear to be meaningful but actually are not practical”

2. A day without mobile phone

3. Comment on the statement: “To study alone without friends around makes one learn less and be ignorant.”

If you find these topics challenging, you are not alone.

Yours truly, who has spent two decades in English and Chinese journalism, is also not sure if he can come up with something meaningful to write, let alone complete the task within an hour and a half.

But at least he is thankful for not seeing a question that ended with something about “necessary silence”, as was the case in last year’s exam.

The writing exam, which is referred to as “death paper” by some students, has drawn a flurry of comments in online forums, with students debating the merits and meanings of the questions.

Now, coming to the first topic that was laid out above, we presume many candidates will first associate true democracy to be their dream.

But the wordplay could arouse the interest of all: yellow ribbon supporters (public schools) as well as blue ribbon (pro-establishment schools) and everyone else.

Yellow ribbon supporters should not feel upset about having to admit that their meaningful dream of genuine universal suffrage is impractical for the moment amid Beijing’s hard line.

Instead, they should feel proud about being a force behind the Occupy Movement last year, which gave a chance for all the pro-democracy supporters to say ‘no’ to Beijing. 

All said, it was an exam on the use of language and not on their knowledge or views as in the case of Liberal Studies. So we presume students will not be judged for what they actually write. 

But the topic can at least serve one broader purpose — the government can study the responses to get a picture of what the teenagers think about the universal suffrage issues.

It is a less costly and more effective measure than a general opinion poll on whether lawmakers should vote for or against the current political reform bill.

Now, coming to the second question — on mobile phones — one must say it is rather imaginative.

Seriously, can you expect Hong Kong teenagers to live without their Facebook and WhatsApp? I guess most students would have found words inadequate to express their anxiety about life without their mobile devices, which they deem more important than even cash, Octopus or ID cards.

The third question on friends and books will probably be mind-boggling for students as well.

By incorporating material from the Classics of Rites, or Liji, from some 2,500 years ago when it was used in ancient China’s civil service examinations, authorities in Hong Kong may have shown that they are really not in step with the modern era.

If the youth have their internet and Google, will they ever really be alone?

–Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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