No thanks for the memories

HONG KONG. Yojana Sharma reports on why hundreds of students were penalised for using near-identical essays in an exam. When hundreds of Hong Kong sixth-formers were penalised in their A-level Chinese language exam this year for repeating verbatim parts of "model essays" produced by private tutorial schools, the incident unleashed a storm of public protest - much of it in favour of the students.

In almost 600 exam papers, the Hong Kong Examination Authority found content, use of words or sentence structures similiar to the model essays. Several hundred students churned out near-identical essays on the topic of Chinese festivals. In some cases, students even left a blank space when they forgot a word used in a model essay rather than use another that expressed the same idea, the examiners said.

The examiners did not award marks on paragraphs thought tobe memorised. Of the marked-down candidates, 152 - 118 of whom had failed - appealed against their grades. Seven were upgraded.

There was no evidence of cheating or collusion. A part-time tutor at one of the colleges, Dr Ho Tim, a university lecturer who sits on the exam authority's subject committee, said that he had not asked his students to memorise the work. "I presented my essays just to let them know how to write an essay, " he said. "I chose the topics because they were popular. I did not get any tip on that."

The incident has cast a harsh light on the Chinese language A-level, which, according to many students, does not call for much originality of thought.

Letter after letter in local newspapers argued that there was nothing wrong with memorisation being the way to obtain a high grade in order to enter university.

While the problem of memorised essays has arisen before in the examination for English as a second language, it has not previously surfaced in Chinese. Several warnings that memorised work will not be considered have been published in the English examination syllabus for several years, but no such warnings have been provided in the case of the Chinese examination syllabus.

Rex King, the deputy secretary of the Hong Kong Examination Authority, said that, although teachers and principals understood full well that language exams were a test of creativity, there had been a proliferation of tutorial colleges which promised higher success rates for students and this had put more emphasis on memorisation.

"Even good students from good schools are wasting time and money on these establishments, some of which have become fashionable," he said.

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