Hong Kong’s exam authority has announced plans to cancel the English-speaking assessment for the university entrance curriculum amid the Omicron outbreak.
The exam, part of the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE), which determines entrance to the city’s universities, has been cancelled for three consecutive years.
The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority said the practical exams for physical education and music would also be postponed until the end of May or early June.
Wei Xiangdong, the secretary general of the authority, said they had no alternative but to cancel the verbal exam.
“Candidates can’t sit too far from each other during the group discussion, otherwise they won’t be able to hear others. But then there could be a higher risk of [virus] transmissions,” Wei said.
The score weighting of the speaking paper accounted for 10 per cent, the smallest share of the overall grade for English.
Following the cancellation, the weighting of the reading, writing, listening and integrated skills papers will be increased to 23 per cent, 28 per cent, and 34 per cent respectively.
The weighting of the school-based assessment will remain unchanged at 15 per cent.
“Candidates’ preparation work will not be in vain because the school-based assessment also covers their English-speaking abilities,” said Ricardo Mak King-sang, the authority’s director of public examinations.
Mak said that past research had shown a positive correlation between the four different papers for the English language exam, with students who did well in sections such as listening and writing also performing well in speaking.
“We believe that the overall result of English skill and ability [of the candidates] can still be demonstrated,” Mak said.
The assessment was originally scheduled for March 29 until April 8, while the Chinese-speaking examination had already been cancelled.
Wei said that the authority would aim to start the written exam for visual arts on April 22 as scheduled, but added the organisation would discuss any further developments with the Education Bureau.
Pauline Chow Lo-sai, a veteran English consultant for secondary school, said the cancellation was sudden, and that some of her students were very disappointed.
“Every practice of the speaking assessment requires four students to join together and they have spent a lot of time preparing for it,” she said.
“School-based assessment is still different from a proper public examination. But usually students who do well in the speaking assessment can also perform well in the written exam.”
The authority also said they had advised schools to assign multiple rooms for candidates to take the exam, while also keeping a distance of 1.8 metres between their desks.
Schools were also advised to prepare backup venues for other educational institutions if necessary.
At the same time, lawmaker Tang Fei, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, urged the exam authority to announce arrangements for quarantined candidates.
“If a confirmed case is detected in one of the school venues, other candidates and teachers could be sent to a quarantine camp. Preparation works should be done soon if the authority plans to allow students to take their exam during quarantine,” Tang said.
As officials planned to launch a “vaccine pass” on February 24, the authority said it would uphold the government’s decision when asked if candidates would be required to be inoculated before they took the exam.
The authority previously issued health guidelines to DSE candidates, requiring students to wear a surgical mask throughout the speaking assessment, as well as cleaning their hands with alcohol-based sanitiser gel before entering the preparation and examination rooms.