The government launched the language proficiency assessment for teachers in 2000, as part of its efforts to raise language standards. But since 2001, when the first tests were held, pass rates have been embarrassingly low, at less than 50 per cent.
This year's results, released earlier this month, reveal that 450 of the 895 teachers who joined the profession after 2001 failed to pass the test within the two-year time limit. More than half of these are English teachers.
Longer-serving teachers also fared badly, with more than half of the 1,400 failing this year. They have until 2005 to pass.
In one school as many as nine English teachers failed and can no longer teach the subject.
From next year, all new teachers will have to pass the test before they start teaching, though those who major in the language at undergraduate level and have postgraduate teacher training are exempt.
The high failure rate has prompted soul-searching about declining English standards in the former British colony and the nature of the test. There are also fears that there will be a shortage of language teachers as a result.
Sixty-five per cent of the English teachers who started teaching in 2001 and took the test this year had not been subject or professionally trained, according to the Hong Kong institute of education, which has since phased out its sub-degree certificate in education programmes.
Professor Paul Morris, its president, said these teachers included the last cohort admitted after only completing Form Five of school and had not been given enough time to upgrade their English skills.
"You have got to see them as victims of changing policy. They are teachers who didn't claim to be able to teach English but were required to do so by their schools. It is the fault of the system to allow teachers to teach with no expertise in the language," he said.
He called for the government to increase the number of language places at universities.
The test covers reading, writing, listening, oral and classroom language and teachers must pass all papers.
Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, complained it was too hard. "Teachers said some of the papers were at degree level, but they are only teachers who graduated with certificates," he said.