As an old Chinese saying goes, learning is like sailing a boat against the current - either you forge ahead, or you will be swept downstream. Recently, scholars also issued a similar lament upon reviewing the results of a study on the assessments of Hong Kong students.
The latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey results were announced on December 3.
Conducted last year, the study assessed students' performance in reading, mathematics and science, for 79 education systems around the world.
Hong Kong students dropped out of the top three in reading and mathematics to fourth place, down two spots, and remained in ninth place for science. The average score was the lowest since the program launched in 2000.
In contrast, Macau students surpassed Hong Kong in the three subjects, ranking third globally.
Hau Kit-tai, project manager of Hong Kong PISA 2018 and professor of educational psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, sees the findings as a warning for Hong Kong's education system.
Developed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the PISA is conducted every three years to assess 15-year-olds in three basic abilities. It also looks at factors that influence their learning and compares educational systems, providing an alternative perspective to examinations, as a benchmark to reflect educational standards.
From April to May last year, the EdDataX Research Centre at CUHK conducted tests on 6,037 students at 152 secondary schools in Hong Kong. It found that the average scores of Hong Kong students were 524 in reading, 551 in mathematics and 517 in science.
Meanwhile, the average scores of Macau students were 525 in reading, 558 in math and 544 in science, performing better than last time and narrowly exceeding those of Hong Kong.
Hau said it was time for Hong Kong to think about education reform, as Macau has already started addressing education issues such as student repetition rates. He pointed out that the repetition rate in Macau was very high, while that of Hong Kong was very low.
"But even a low repetition rate is not a sign of educational success," he said.
He said that Macau is highly aware of its education problems and is cautious about dealing with its repetition rate. Their questionnaire response rates from parents were very high, indicating strong concern.
Improving students' scientific and problem-solving abilities is an urgent issue for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong students' scores in science have been falling for several years, which is believed to be related to the fact that fewer students are studying physics, biology and chemistry under the new academic structure.
Under the old 3223 academic structure, more than 40 percent of students took physics, chemistry and biology at the same time. However, under the new 334 academic structure, only 20 percent took just one science subject. Few took the three sciences at the same time.
The new structure, which was implemented in 2009 and replaced the old system in 2012, is similar to that of mainland China and was designed to integrate with the mainland's system.
However, in the mainland, students study both arts and sciences in the first year of high school (secondary four), and only choose their subjects for further study in the second year (secondary five).
Also, in the mainland, there are high school entrance examinations, independently arranged by each administrative region, while Hong Kong secondary three students go on to senior secondary at the same school, without exams.
The advantages of the mainland's region-based arrangements are reflected in the assessment results. Students from Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions outperformed those from 78 other education systems.
"[In Hong Kong,] students who know that they won't study science in high school give up those subjects when they are in secondary three, so their science scores have dropped," Hau said, adding that if the situation continues, students will suffer. He stressed the need for reforming the science curriculum to enhance Hong Kong students' scientific capabilities.
Another factor influencing students' choice of subjects was the universities' admission system, he said.
He hopes that universities could pay more attention to science scores when admitting students, and discuss an admission system conducive to cultivating science and technology talent in Hong Kong.