22 October 2016
Excessive drills are not only undermining the students’ interest in learning but also diverting TSA from its original purpose. Photo: HKEJ
Excessive drills are not only undermining the students’ interest in learning but also diverting TSA from its original purpose. Photo: HKEJ

Why we should rethink TSA

Launched in 2004, the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) is compulsory for Primary 3, Primary 6 and Secondary 3 students.

Students are required to undergo written assessments in Chinese, English and Math, as well as random oral assessment in the two language subjects.

Schools receive TSA reports on the percentage of students that attain basic competency and overall performance.

However, grades of individual students will not be shown.

The Education Bureau (EDB) says TSA is a low-stakes assessment and is not intended to rank schools.

Also, it does not affect students’ advancement or secondary school allocation.

The purpose of the assessment is to give the government an idea about the caliber of students and speed up support measures for schools.

From this assessment, schools and teachers can adjust their teaching arrangements according to students’ needs.

In recent years, the administration has adopted measures to ease pressure on teachers and students, including administering P6 TSA in alternate years and withholding data of attainment rates from schools.

Guidelines regarding the use of TSA data are in place to curb unnecessary competition between schools.

Despite those efforts, teachers and students have come under mounting pressure in tackling TSA.

While TSA starts at P3, exam drills usually begins as early as P1.

Some schools require students to buy as many as 26 TSA practice books and attend supplementary drills during lunchtime, after school and even on holidays.

A survey also shows that 70 percent of teachers find that TSA disturbs normal teaching and assessment and 65 percent oppose its continuation.

Excessive drills are not only undermining the students’ interest in learning but also diverting TSA from its original purpose.

In theory, TSA should be classified as a formative assessment, or assessment for learning.

In reality, many students are spoon-fed with exam techniques.

Thus, TSA is regarded by schools as a summative assessment, or assessment of learning.

In this regard, it is doubtful how TSA performance can reflect more than mere robotic, knee-jerk reactions to specific exam formats and questions.

Structuring classroom learning around TSA is not only putting the cart before the horse but also obstructing students from genuinely understanding and applying their basic competencies and knowledge.

To be fair, there might be little room for schools to maneuver given that TSA drills have become the norm.

Some sponsoring bodies were reported to appraise teachers according to TSA results while some EDB officials allegedly urged schools to improve TSA performance.

The result resembles what is called in game theory the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

If all schools reject drills, all stakeholders will benefit.

Yet, as long as some schools keep these drills, others will be forced to play safe and succumb to peer pressure for fear of complaints by EDB, sponsoring bodies and parents.

This leads to widespread drills and hurts the interests of both teachers and students.

Systematic assessment provides valuable information to the government and schools and should not be scraped altogether.

Nevertheless, this does not mean we should settle for the undesirable status quo.

To prevent excessive drills, suggestions such as cancelling P3 TSA and randomly administering TSA have been put forward by stakeholders.

In fact, sample-based testing need not detract from the effectiveness of assessment.

PISA (program for international student assessment) for instance, is taken by 15-year-old students randomly selected from schools every three years.

The government has never questioned the credibility of PISA.

In Finland, Grade 6 and Grade 9 students undergo sample-based evaluations in the mother language and literature or math.

Put simply, making TSA compulsory for all students is unnecessary.

Another proposal is to delegate the implementation and marking process of TSA to individual schools while the HKEAA can continue being responsible for producing TSA papers and marking schemes.

As some teachers have pointed out, in the past, the Hong Kong Attainment Test was also be implemented by schools with much discretion and without calculation of benchmark attainment for each school.

The same can be done for TSA.

As mentioned by the authorities, TSA is intended to improve teaching and policy support, rather than ranking the schools or holding them accountable.

In this sense, it should be acceptable if schools keep the attainment data to themselves and report only the general picture of students’ performance and follow-up measures to the EDB.

This can remove incentives for drills.

The proposed arrangement can prevent TSA from squeezing out normal teaching and frustrating teachers and students.

It would allow greater room for teachers to address disparity among students, conduct more diagnostic and formative assessments and, eventually, gain a better understanding of students’ learning progress.

Ben Lee wrote this article.

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