giving oral examination

Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination

The Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE, 香港中學會考) is a standardized examination which most local students sit for at the end of their 5-year secondary education. It is conducted by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). The equivalent in United Kingdom is the GCSE exams.


In 2005, 119,471 candidates entered for the examination. 86,019 of them were school candidates and 33,451 were private candidates, of which most are re-takers of individual exams.

The HKCEE is conducted from late April to May, for most subjects, by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). For oral examinations, they are conducted in late June.

The results are released in the second week of August. There are 44 subjects available in the HKCEE. Most day school candidates take 7 to 8 subjects in the HKCEE, with 10 being the upper limit. Apart from Chinese Language and English Language which are taken by almost every school candidate, and language-specific subjects (French, Chinese History (Chinese only), Buddhist Studies (Chinese only), Literature in English (English only), Putonghua (Chinese only) and Word Processing & Business Communication (English only).), all subjects can be taken in either Chinese or English. The same standards are applied in marking and grading regardless of the choice of language, and the language medium is not recorded on the results notices or certificates. It is, however, recorded on the admission forms.

Purpose of HKCEE

After sitting the HKCEE and having their examination results announced, candidates may apply for a place in Form 6 amongst local schools in Hong Kong. Moreover, in order to qualify for the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination(HKALE), students must pass certain requirements of HKCEE as a prerequisite. The Joint University Programmes Admissions System(JUPAS), including the EAS system under JUPAS, also consider students' HKCEE results as a requirement, and as a factor of admission in the admission processes. Thus, students' result in HKCEE not only affect the application of Form 6, it also directly affecting the chance entering the universities after Form 7., which is commonly ignored by students until they entered Form 6. For students having better performance in HKCEE, they will have advantage in applying some of the programmes that consider much on HKCEE results towards students with same HKALE results, but lower HKCEE points.

The certificate of HKCEE is well-known and widely recognised in Hong Kong as a formal document for seeking a job or pursuing further studies. The HKEAA has arrangements with examination boards in the United Kingdom and most subjects are functionally equivalent to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). However, it is widely known that the HKCEE examination is qualitatively much harder than its General Certificate of Education (GCE) equivalent. Moreover, there are also significantly less students obtaining a grade of A on a percentage basis. This steep curve is introduced partly to accommodate for the lack of resources in the local university system.

For comparison, the Mathematics syllabus of HKCEE is equal to New Zealand's NCEA Level 2 Mathematics at Form 6 (Year 12) level (excluding Calculus) rather than NCEA Level 1 or its predecessor the School Certificate examination sat by the country's Form 5 (Year 11) students.

Additional Mathematics in the HKCEE is on balance academically more advanced than NCEA Level 3 Mathematics with Calculus, sat by Form 7 (Year 13) students in New Zealand to gain university entrance in science and engineering. HKCEE's Additional Mathematics is also recognized by most of the programmes in Hong Kong's universities as qualificationally equivalent to HKALE Pure Mathematics.

For the examination questions on the same topics, those in HKCEE tend to be loaded with hard to understand wordings and difficult manipulations compared with their NCEA counterparts.

In other subjects, such as the sciences like Chemistry, Physics, the syllabi covered in HKCEE are similar to that of the SAT Subject Tests sat in Grade 12, but it is arguably easier to obtain a score of 760 on the SAT Subject Tests then to obtain a grade of A in the HKCEE examination despite theoretically, Grade 12 is equivalent to Form 6 under the Hong Kong school system.


The results of the HKCEE are expressed in terms of seven grades A - U other than French, English and Chinese languages.

Grade Point(s) Recognition
A (5*) 5 Equivalent to A* in GCSE
B (5) 4
C (4) 3 Credit
D (3) 2 -----
E (2) 1 Minimum requirement for employment purposes, a pass in HKCEE
F (1) 0 Failed
U (u) 0 Unclassified, a grade lower than F

Results below grade 'F' are designated as unclassified ('UNCL'), assigned either when candidates hand in unanswered or unintelligent paper(s), or when candidates are assumed to have cheated. Candidates not taking the exam are designated as Absent ('ABS') for that subject.

Before 2002 grades A - F were each divided into two fine grades, making the original number of grades available twelve, from A(01) to F(12). The fine grades in both HKCEE and HKALE were lifted in 2002, as such system was accused to have discrimination on students.

The results are graded 'on the curve' but at the same time a cutoff score for each grade is also used. Obtaining an A is very difficult, especially for languages, where only about 1.5-3% of the students get As. On average, only the top 3-4% in each subject can get an A. The cutoff scores vary greatly from subject to subject and from year to year. To give a clearer picture, for Chinese language A-grades are sometimes given for candidates having scored 70 or above, while for Mathematics, an A invariably translates to a score in excess of 90. The cutoff scores are not released by the HKEAA publicly; the information being only available to teachers.

Official statistics can be found on the HKEAA website:

Points correspond to each grade is calculated for Form Six admission, the six best subjects are calculated. Thus, the maximum possible points is 30. This does not imply that a student scores full marks in the HKCEE exam. The minimum requirement for participating the HKALE is getting a level 2 in both languages, and getting at least 4 points in 3 subjects, or passing in 4 subjects. Although students who failed in either or both languages in HKCEE may be admitted to Form 6 if provided that he/she retakes the failed language subject in Form 6 (They would be admitted in the last stage of Form 6 admission ONLY). Most schools refuse to admit this type of students unless the student performed exceptionally good in non-language subjects. For IVE admission, seven best subjects are calculated and the maximum possible points is 35. In most cases students are able to get a place in Secondary 6 with no difficulty, providing passing (or level 2) in both languages and having 14 points in best-6 subjects, and a good conduct in the school)

In 2007, the grades of Chinese Language and English Language are modified to suit the syllabus changes. Also they outlawed 'on the curve' system in both subjects other than giving 5* among the 5's. The 'on the curve' system are expected to be ended with the introduction of HKDSE.

There are seven new grades under the system:

  1. Level 5*=5 points
  2. Level 5=4 points
  3. Level 4=3 points
  4. Level 3=2 points
  5. Level 2=1 points
  6. Level 1=0 point
  7. UNCL=0 point

(Note: The points above is used by offical Form 6 admission processes, which may vary in point calculations by schools)

Even passes in both languages will officially count for at least 4 marks in offical admission processes, but in most cases, schools would take a point away each in Language Subjects during admission process on their own (other than 5*), since taking Level 2 in both languages is the minimum requirement to participating the HKALE examination. In some cases, schools may not admit students with a Level 2 in English. As a importance of Putonghua is increasing since the handover of Hong Kong, HKEAA accepts Grade C in Putonghua as an alternative requirement in the EAS scheme towards Chinese Language's Level 4, which use Cantonese as a medium of examination. Putonghua (or French) can be an alternative subject towards Chinese Language only if student didn't take the latter subject.

International recognition

In terms of international recognition, HKCEE results were originally linked to British GCE 'O' level standards.

For HKCEE subjects, a grade of "C" or above is equivalent to a pass in GCE O-Level examination conducted by a British awarding body, except English Language, Accommodation & Catering Services and Fashion & Clothing.

However, GCE have been replaced by the GCSE in 1988.

A recent research study on the equivalence of HKEAA awards to GCSE is conducted by UK NARIC in 2007. The study compared examinations of a similar academic standard – the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) with the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). The study concludes that the percentage of Hong Kong candidates achieving top grades in Hong Kong for subjects (excluding English language, which is subject to a separate comparison) of the same academic standard are generally lower and top grades more difficult to achieve than for GCSE and has issued the following comparative tables:

A A*, A
B A, B
C B, C
D C, D
E D, E
F E, F, G

UK NARIC is the UK's National Agency for the UK Government. They are the official information provider on information on wide-ranging international qualifications and skills attained from outside the UK.

Please note that although NARIC is a National Agency for the UK Government, but the institutions of higher education may make their own decision on what foreign qualifications or study they will accept, and UK NARIC has only an advisory role.

The two new HKCEE language subjects have been benchmarked against the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) by the Cambridge Assessment. The HKCEE results in Chinese Language and English Language are recognised as equivalent to the IGCSE results as follows:

5* A*, A
5 B
4 C
3 D

Marking schemes

While the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) have been publishing booklets of past examination papers of each subject at an affordable price, the marking schemes (i.e. official detailed solutions) of past examinations were never readily available to the public. The official argument from the HKEAA for not publishing these marking schemes was that it might be "pedagogically unsound" and encourages "rote memorization" behaviours from students. Nevertheless, students were often able to obtain these "restricted documents" through taking classes at tutorial centres. Hence, the policy of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) indirectly denied less-privileged students from gaining access to information pertaining to how examination papers are scored. This might create a socio-economical bias in the ability of students to obtain good results in the HKCEE. Moreover, according to media reports, some so-called "star tutors" managed to earn upwards of HK$7 million per annum (~US$900,000), leading some to speculate that the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA)'s policy had indirectly transferred large amounts of wealth to these tutorial centres.

To deal with this problem, the HKEAA has started to release the marking schemes together with the examination papers of that year since 2003.

HKSAR Government Scholarship

The HKSAR Government Scholarship is a prestigious award associated with the HKCEE Examination. The top 30-40 candidates in the HKCEE Examination receive this scholarship each year. Counterintuitively, many 10A students fail to receive this award. This apparent paradox is mainly due to the methodology in which the HKSAR Government Scholarship is awarded. Rather than calculating the number of As each student has, the HKSAR Government Scholarship is awarded on the basis of the highest total in raw scores attained in the seven best subjects of each student. Consequently, many 9A, 8A, and even 7A students go on to win this award while 10A students go home empty handed. This has been a major source of complaint from eager parents of 10A students who felt cheated from this coveted prize.

Early Admission Scheme

Currently, there is a scheme called the Early Admission Scheme held by universities in Hong Kong, such as The University of Hong Kong (HKU), The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Candidates with 6 or more 'A's (Distinctions) in the HKCEE (With their English Language scoring level 4 or above, and scoring level 4/'C' or above in Chinese Language, French or Putonghua) are eligible for applying the Early Admission Scheme which may grant them the admission to the aforementioned institutions without the need to sit for the HKALE.

List of subjects

  • Accommodation and Catering Services 3
  • Additional Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Buddhist Studies 2
  • Ceramics 1
  • Chemistry
  • Chinese History
  • Chinese Language
  • Chinese Literature
  • Commerce
  • Computer and Information Technology
  • Design and Technology 6
  • Design and Technology (Alternative Syllabus) 6
  • Economic and Public Affairs 4
  • Economics 4
  • Electronics and Electricity
  • Engineering Science 1
  • English Language
  • Fashion and Clothing 5
  • French
  • Geography
  • Government and Public Affairs
  • Graphical Communication
  • History
  • Home Economics (Dress and Design) 5
  • Home Economics (Food, Home and Family) 3
  • Human Biology 1
  • Integrated Humanities
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Physical Education
  • Physics
  • Principles of Accounts
  • Putonghua
  • Religious Studies 2
  • Science and Technology
  • Social Studies
  • Technical Drawing 1
  • Technological Studies 6
  • Textiles 1
  • Travel and Tourism
  • Visual Art
  • Word Processing and Business Communication (English)
  • Syllabus will be cancelled since 2007
  • Buddhist Studies may not be taken with Religious studies, Religious Studies are available in Christian and Catholic versions on the same paper, which varies in the cites in The Holy Bible, chapters that only appear in Catholic version are not in Syllabus. Both subjects are open-booked.
  • Accommodation and Catering Services may not be taken with Home Economics (Food, Home and Family)
  • Economics may not be taken with Economic and Public Affairs
  • Home Economics (Dress and Design) may not be taken with Fashion and Clothing
  • Design and Technology may not be taken with Design and Technology (Alternative Syllabus) or Technological Studies

Future development

The Authority is implementing School-based Assessment gradually to all subjects, in order to reduce the stress on students due to tedious examination practicing. Starting from 2006, two subjects--Chinese History and History--has been implented with the School-based assessment, replacing the previous multiple choice paper in public examinations.

Owing to the transition from the 5+2-year curriculum (5 years of secondary and 2 years of sixth form / matriculation) to a 6-year curriculum of secondary education, the HKCEE and the HKALE will be phased out and replaced with a new examination, namely Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE).

In 2007, the curriculum of the subjects Chinese Language and English Language were revised. The two subjects were no longer graded along the normal distribution curve but rather by criteria referencing. Letter grades will also be abolished and numerical levels used instead, with 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. In addition, level 5 will be further sub-divided into 5 and 5*.

The proposed revisions specific to Chinese Language include:

  • The removal of the 26 selected essays, excerpts from the classics, poems and ancient lyrics in the original curriculum, replacing them with the selection of reading materials by the teachers.
  • Independent reading comprehension and writing papers.
  • The addition of a listening comprehension examination.
  • The addition of a speaking (oral) examination.
  • The addition of a paper testing integrated skills.
  • The addition of a school-based assessment (SBA) scheme that accounts for 20% of the exam mark.

The proposed revisions specific to English Language include:

  • The abolishment of two separate syllabi. Before 2007, two syllabi coexist. Grades attained on syllabus A is considered 2 grades inferior to grades attained on syllabus B (e.g. a C on syllabus A is equivalent to an E on syllabus B), which is an O-level equivalent.
  • The abolishment of the testing of grammar and language usage which was once part of the old reading comprehension and usage paper. (Grammar will be tested alongside with comprehension in the same section)
  • A refined writing paper, now requiring two separate pieces writing, one guided, one independent and more open-ended.
  • A refined reading comprehension paper, with questions requiring written answers instead of the old format in which every question was a multiple choice question.
  • A refined speaking skills paper, requiring more independent thinking than the previous routinized paper.
  • The addition of a school-based assessment (SBA) scheme that accounts for 15% of the exam mark.

HKEAA had also announced that candidates sat in the 2006 exam who wish to retake Chinese or English subjects shall take the new syllabi. It is questionable whether whose candidates, previously adopt to the old syllabi, can follow the structure of the new syllabi in just about half year.

Recent year controversies

2005 English Language (Syllabus B) grading error

In 2005, the oral component of the Syllabus B English language examination was incorrectly added to the total score due to a recent upgrade to the HKEAA computer system and the supervisor in charge failed to double-check the results. Subsequently, many candidates received an incorrect total score which resulted in an incorrect final grade for the subject. The problem was so severe that some students wrongfully received an F grade (2nd lowest grade) when they were supposed to receive an A (highest grade) in the oral section. Since the final English marks is averaged by the marks in oral, reading comprehension, listening, and written, having an F in oral will seriously affect the final English mark if the candidate did well in other components.

In an attempt to mitigate the situation, the HKEAA publicly apologised and offered free rechecks on the oral component of the English language subject for all candidates. Candidates who would have resulted in a higher score received an upgrade. In total, the error affected 670 candidates. 422 candidates had their oral component mark upgraded while 248 had their overall English Language subject grade upgraded. This cascade reaction affects 233 candidates which are eligible for Form Six Admission.

However, the mistake was discovered far too late. It was discovered when Form Six Admission process was almost over. Since some candidates were unable to find a school for their matriculate education because they received an incorrect grade, the EMB was forced to increase the school quotas for some schools to accommodate those affected students. HKEAA chairman Irving Koo assured to the students that their education will not be affected due to this error.

2005 English Language (Syllabus B) incident

A proofreading exercise in the Paper 2 of the HKCEE English Language (Syllabus B) quoted a message adapted from an online forum. Some students, for their anger, went flaming on the forum. This caused the HKEAA to hold several internal meetings for not to quote the online forum messages anymore.

2006 English Language (Syllabus B) paper 2 incident

The HKCEE English Language (Syllabus B) 2006, the last year for this syllabus, was administered on 4 May 2006. During Paper 2, Reading Comprehension and Usage, some candidates complained that the HKEAA, in providing all of the study sources via weblink, created the potential for candidates to go to toilets and access the solutions with electronic devices such as PDA's and cell phones. This rumour was first propagated on local forums and Young-M The incident has generated widespread public furor.

Numerous discussions have been initiated on local forums. Candidates sitting for the paper are currently demanding a re-take of the paper and an apology from the HKEAA. Some candidates have collaborated with political parties to hold protests against the HKEAA decision to not re-administer the paper. A protest (Cantonese) is proposed for the 31st of May or the 1st of July.

On a local forum, a candidate has threatened to sue the HKEAA, saying that justice needed to be defended. More than 100 complaints have already been received by the HKEAA regarding the incident.

The actual articles used in the exam:

  • , an article on the Para Para scene in Hong Kong, published by USA Today on August 31, 2001.
  • , a website about cyber-bullying, consisting of numerous grammatical and structural mistakes

2007 Chinese Language paper 2 incident

In 2007 HKCEE Chinese Language Paper 2 (Writing), Question 2 'Lemon Tea' was suspected to be leaked beforehand since a tutor, called Siu Yuen, from King's Glory Education Centre gave his students a sample article of a similar title 'Iced Lemon Tea' well before the exam. This led to assumption that this tutor had knowledge of the question in the actual exam by whatever means.

2 students have lodged a complaint to the Hong Kong Examinations & Assessments Authority regarding this incident. A spokesperson of the HKEAA claims that any kinds of copying by candidates will result in no marks given to the parts copied.

2007 English Language mock paper incident

The HKEAA had provided the mock paper of Chinese and English subjects to schools for practising, as the syllabi will be changed in the same year. While the instruction requested students to use a pencil in answering multiple-choice questions and other answers in English Paper 1A, held on March 7, quite a number of students used a ball pen to answer it. Concerns thus raised, yet the Authority said that the results will not be affected.

The fourth and fifth item in "Instruction to candidates":

4. "...Write your answers clearly and neatly in the spaces provided in the Question-Answer Book. Use a pencil to write your answer."

5. "For multiple-choice questions, blacken the appropriate circle with a pencil..."

2007 English Language questions leakage incident

Before the examination date of English Language Papers in 2007, "Mr. Ken", one of the well-known tutors at the Modern Education Centre in Hong Kong, called his students back to the tutorial centre for a few days before the test to review some material on fashion. It was later found that the actual test had some of the same topics and even some questions identical to that of the tutor's, fueling worries of a possible leakage.

2008 Chinese Language incident

Controversies were in two papers, paper 1, comprehension, and paper 5, integrated skills.

In paper 1, the format in previous years was that two passages were supplied, one in Vernacular Chinese and one in Classical Chinese, and candidates were required to answer questions mainly in words. In 2008, however, the second passage was a Chinese poem instead. Also, half of the total scores were from multiple choice questions, and in some questions choices were said to be difficult to distinguish. For example, in question 1, the four choices were "believable" (可以相信), "affirmative" (肯定的是), "proved by facts" (事實證明) and "undeniable" (無可否認). Some teachers said even they cannot make decisions in short time, or said the paper requires deduction skills and common sense rather than Chinese knowledge, while some candidates said the paper was more like gamble than examination. Some also commented the passages were too difficult for CE level. Even the university professor admits he cannot finish the exam without using reasonable amount of time. The first Vernacular Chinese passage was said to be of the difficulty of Form 7 Advanced Level Examination Chinese Language and Culture, and the second poem, Moonlight Of Spring River (春江花月夜) in Tang Dynasty, was even said to be of difficulty of university Chinese Literacy. The Examinations and Assessment Authority replied that papers can be set in any format and style.

In paper 5, where candidates were required to listen to recording and do various tasks, both the recording and the data file were criticized. A Halloween advertisement was included in the recording, and some candidates afterward said that they felt uneasy or thought the radio channel has been switched. In the data file, Chinese slang terms were discussed in a piece of newspaper article and in a poster promoting reading. Some teachers and students criticized that the materials promote slang terms, some students say that they had not heard of such terms, and more said that the Examinations and Assessment Authority has misconceptions on the use of those slang terms. However, also some scholar said the paper encouranges critical thinking, making students know not to use slang terms.

On YouTube and Internet forums, ringtones of the recording appeared after the paper, including the imitation of Cantopop duo Twins singing their song "Lian Ai Da Guo Tian" (戀愛大過天, Love Is More Important Than Anything), and also the recording of the Halloween advertisement.

Some candidates also suggested actions to protest the difficulty of the comprehension paper, by wearing black clothes and staying on seats after the end of examinations on 2 May and 3 May 2008, when the English Language examinations will be held.


As a usual practice, the HKEAA publishes past papers, marking schemes and examination reports every year. At past, only past papers were available; most subjects will put past papers of consecutive 5 years into a joint edition (except English and Putonghua that contains a tape/CD). Marking schemes are to be given to markers only.

Since 2003, the authority issued the examination report and question papers in year form and this book inclued question paper, suggested answers, candidates performance and examination statistics, and the price ranged from HK$20-45.

See also


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