Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination

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The Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE, 香港高級程度會考), or more commonly known as the A-level, conducted by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), is normally taken by senior students at the end of their matriculation in Hong Kong between 1979 to 2012. It was originally being the entrance examination in University of Hong Kong until the introduction of Joint University Programmes Admissions System(JUPAS) in 1992, which made it being the major university entrance examination until academic year 2011/2012.[1]

The examination is conducted from March to May, and the results are routinely released in the first week of July (or late June). There are altogether 17 A-level and 17 AS-level subjects in the HKALE. AS-level is commonly known as Hong Kong Advanced Supplementary Level Examination (HKASLE). AS-level subjects are taught within half the number of periods compared to that required for A-level subjects, but they demand the same level of intellectual vigour. Most day school candidates take four or five subjects in the HKALE. Apart from Chinese Language and Culture and Use of English which are taken by almost every school candidate, and other language-related subjects, all subjects can be taken in either English or Chinese. The same standards are applied in both marking and grading; the instruction medium is not recorded on the results notices nor certificates.

The results of the HKALE are expressed in terms of six grades A – F, of which grade A is the highest and F the lowest. Results below grade F are designated as unclassified (UNCL). The abolishment of fine grades used in 2001 (i.e. A(01), A(02), B(03), B(04), etc.) was in force from 2002.

Some subjects which demand substantial memorisation and clarification of difficult concepts, such as Chinese History, Biology and Economics, have their syllabus partly equivalent to first-year undergraduate courses in terms of the length and depth on the syllabuses.[citation needed]

As a part of the educational reform in Hong Kong, the examination will be abolished after academic year 2012/2013. The final examination in 2013 is only available to candidates examination and no longer be able to use the result to apply for tertiary institutes through JUPAS.


Prior to 1993, students would need to choose among two university entrance examinations, the HKALE or the Hong Kong Higher Level Examination. The former originally led to a three-year course in the University of Hong Kong (HKU) at the end of Form Seven (Upper Six), mainly for students in English-medium schools. The latter led to a four-year course in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), then operated in Chinese, at the end of Form Six (Lower Six) for students in Chinese-medium schools.

Later on, a majority of education authorities considered that the "dual-band" examination system had become practically unsuitable; and that a unified matriculation system would be urgently needed, as stated in a report presented to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as early as in 1981. In the report, the "dual-band" system was found to be the crux that caused confusion and anxiety among Hong Kong students, in addition to the inevitably keen competition for tertiary places. (Hong Kong Education Department, 1981, p. 178)

Through considerable debates (Tang and Bray, 2000), programmes in CUHK switched to three-year systems as those launched in HKU in 1991. Consequently, the Hong Kong Higher Level Examination was abolished, and finally merged with today's HKALE. Advanced Supplementary Level subjects were also implemented at the same time so as to cater for different needs of candidates. (Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, 2003, p. 4)

HKALE, HKDSE and UK A-Levels Comparison [1] [2][edit]

The results of the HKALE are expressed in terms of seven grades: A – U. The HKDSE equivalent grades are arrived at by deduction, as the entrance requirements for universities and government positions in Hong Kong officially align 3 as an E in the corresponding HKALE subjects [3]. For Example, according to the document from the Legislative Council, a candidate attaining Level 3 in NSS subjects in the HKDSE will be regarded as having met the requirement of Grade E in the HKALE or Grade C in the HKCEE in similar subjects for those grades or posts with specific subject requirements [4].

Grade (Deduced HKDSE Equivalence) Recognition UCAS Tariff
A (5**) Distinction or GCEAL A* 145
B (5*) Credit or GCEAL A 130
C (5) Credit or GCEAL A 120
D/E (4) Pass or GCEAL B/C 80
E/F (3) Pass or GCEAL D/E 40
U (1) Unclassified, a grade lower than F

The Use of English Examination[edit]

This AS-level examination, which is commonly taken with the A-Levels, tests the ability of students to understand and use English at a level required for tertiary education.

The Use of English (UE) examination was introduced in 1989 as an independent subject as a part of entrance requirement of HKU. It was divided into 4 sections to test students' listening, writing, reading and language skills; plus practical skills for work and study.

Since 1994, the UE examination becomes an AS-level subject and a requirement for JUPAS degree-level programme, also a 20-minute oral examination was added in this reform.

There are five sections in the UE Examination:

  • Section A – Listening Test
    It lasts for 1 hour and is allocated 18% of the total subject mark. Candidates are required to follow what they hear to take notes or interpret pictures. The recorded exam material is broadcast on RTHK and candidates have to use their own radios to listen. RTHK Radio 2 will broadcast a version of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Greensleeves played by the Sinfonia of London, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli before and during the intermissions of the test.
  • Section B – Writing
    It lasts for 1 hour and 15 minutes and is allocated 18% of the total subject mark. Candidates are required to choose a topic out of four options and write an expository essay of approximately 500 words.
  • Section C – Reading and Language Systems
    It lasts for 1 hour and 30 minutes and is allocated 18% of the total subject mark. The reading part consists of multiple-choice questions based on a passage taken from a publication. One third of the total mark of the entire paper is allocated to this section. Types of questions in the Language Systems part are multiple-choice questions on cloze passage and continuity. There are also matching, cloze summary and proof-reading exercises to test candidates' overall language skills.
  • Section D – Oral
    It lasts for 20 minutes and is allocated 18% of the total subject mark. There should be a minimum of three candidates and a maximum of four candidates in each group. Candidates are given 10 minutes to read a passage of 300 words and prepare a presentation based on the passage which lasts no more than 2 minutes. After each candidate has given his/her presentation, the group is given two minutes to prepare mentally for a discussion which will last for eight minutes for 3 candidates and ten minutes for 4 candidates.
  • Section E – Practical Skills for Work and Study
    It lasts for 1 hour and 45 minutes and is allocated 28% of the total subject mark. Candidates are given a situation, a role and 2–3 tasks to perform. They are given a data file containing information in various formats and with the data file, they are to select the kind of relevant information they need to fulfill the tasks required. Writing tasks involved may be a report, an article, a letter, a proposal or a newsletter.

A pass in the UE is considered essential to being accepted to any degree program under the JUPAS (However, some universities accept a band 6 in IELTS or similar as an alternative of HKALE English pass).

Comparison with IELTS[edit]

A survey was conducted to equate the results in HKASL Use of English and the International English Language Testing System by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. [5]

IELTS 7.41 – 8.30 6.92 – 7.40 6.51 – 6.91 6.03 – 6.50 5.40 – 6.02

Controversy of new marking scheme[edit]

The controversy followed the HKEAA's announcement in 2007 that if a candidate exceeds the word limit (500 words) in a task in Section E (Practical skills for work and study), anything written beyond the limit would not be marked. However, according to the marking guidelines issued in the previous year, students who did so should be deducted only two marks out of the style mark for doing so. Hence, criticism is resulted among many students. These students claimed that although the word limit instruction was stated in the paper, they were not clearly informed of the marking criteria, and that the marking scheme the HKEAA adopted in the previous year gave them a misleading impression. The authority later stated that candidates should have read all the instructions before attempting the questions. It also stated that candidates who followed the instructions strictly should be treated fairly.

The Chinese Language and Culture Examination[edit]

This AS-level examination is also usually taken along with other examinations. It assesses the ability of students in using the Chinese language and their understanding of Chinese culture. Introduced in 1993, the examination comprises tests in:

  • Paper 1A – Practical writing (實用文類寫作);
  • Paper 1B – Reading Comprehension (閱讀理解測驗);
  • Paper 2 – Cultural issues (文化問題);
  • Paper 3 – Listening (聆聽理解)
  • Paper 4 – Oral Skills Assessment (說話能力測試); and
  • Paper 5 – Extra Readings (課外閱讀) (School-based Assessment).

Like Use of English, as being a required-pass subject for degrees in JUPAS, almost all of the student will be sitting in this subject. However, unlike the English Language, students (particularly non-Chinese students or international school students) who did not take the Chinese Language in HKCEE are usually not sitting with this examination either, as a sub-system, JUPAS institutes usually accept an extra AS-level equivalent subject (or similar qualification of Chinese Language pass) to replace the HKALE Chinese Language pass for students who never take part in Chinese Language in both HKCEE and HKALE and studied Chinese for less than 6 years. However, the Chinese University of Hong Kong did not recognise such sub-system, and they need those students to take an internal Chinese Language test set up by them.

Since there are many dialects of spoken Chinese, Paper 3 and Paper 4 can be taken either in Cantonese or in Putonghua, which needs to be declared upon registration. Like other papers with Chinese and English versions, the choice of language is not printed on the certificate.

Paper 1A – Practical Writing[edit]

The writing test lasts for 1 hour and 30 minutes and is allocated 20% of the total subject mark. Candidates are given information about a simulated situation and are required to finish a writing of more than 600 words or two writings of no more than 700 words in total.

Options of text types may be:

  • a formal letter;
  • a personal letter;
  • a script of public speech;
  • a featured topic article;
  • an argumentative criticism;
  • a report (on a case investigation or a project etc.);
  • a proposal;
  • a news article; or
  • minutes.

Unless quoting speeches from public figures, if any names need to be used in the question, they should use the name provided in question, or the name list from the question paper if not available. Marks will be deducted for violation. The rule is set up to prevent candidates using names that can hint oneself which can cause unfairness to other students.

Paper 1B – Reading Comprehension[edit]

The test lasts for 1 hour and is allocated 15% of the total subject mark. Reading comprehension can be:

  • a 2-piece reading (usually one passage written in Classical Chinese whereas another in Vernacular Chinese, a language widely used after the May Fourth Movement);
  • a speed reading—which could be:
    • Type (1) usually contain seven to eight articles which are unrelated to each other,
    • Type (2) three unrelated groups of articles (articles within the same group may have the same theme, and occasionally students are required to compare and contrast them),
    • Type (3) four articles of the same theme, which again require candidates to make comparisons.

In 2005, a "new", "unprecedented" format, a 3-piece reading of which all articles are written in Vernacular Chinese was formularised. This change, however, stirred up much controversy among candidates. See below. The new format also demands candidates to have a high proficiency in comprehension and understanding of rhetoric or euphemism words and phrases.

Paper 2 – Cultural issues[edit]

This test lasts for 1 hour and 30 minutes and is allocated 25% of the total subject mark.

In paper 2, the HKEAA has recommended 6 articles as reading materials for reference. In fact, the authority never recommends candidates memorise all the contents of the suggested materials. Furthermore, a wide-ranging reading habit is highly appreciated at all times.

The questions of paper 2 are set based on the following suggested reading materials:

  1. A Conversation with the Youth about Chinese Culture (Excerpt) (與青年談中國文化), Tang Junyi (唐君毅)
  2. Passion and Chinese Culture (Excerpt) (情與中國文化), Wu Sen (吳森)
  3. Traditional Science: Past, Present and Future (With Appendices) (傳統科學的過去、現在與未來), Liu chun-ts'an (劉君燦)
  4. The Fundamental Essence of Chinese Arts (中國藝術的基本精神), Zhao Yongxin (趙永新)
  5. Traditional Chinese Society (Excerpt) (中國的傳統社會), Ambrose Yeo-Chi King (金耀基)
  6. The Raison d'etre (人生的意義), Yin Hai-kuang (殷海光)

Paper 3 – Listening[edit]

The listening test lasts for approximately 45 minutes and is allocated 15% of the total subject mark. Like the UE listening test, the exam material is broadcast on RTHK Radio 2. Like the English Listening examinations, Fantasia on Greensleeves is played before and during the intermissions of the examinations. The broadcast version are in Cantonese, for the Putonghua group, they will be assigned in designated examination venues, which provide CD tapes separately, which the contents are the same as the Cantonese.

Candidates are required to answer questions as they listen to the material. Samples of questions are provided on the first two pages of the paper. Before 2003, candidates used to write sentences for answering questions. Since 2003, the questioning mode is simplified into multiple-choice type, ticking the correct answer and the "Fatal Four".

"Fatal Four" (奪命四式) is a name given to the question type, in which many candidates find difficulties in answering. This type of questions requires candidates to indicate the correctness of the given statements regarding the listening material. Possible answers are "true", "false", "partially correct" and "cannot be determined". It was widely considered difficult because the answers are not often given clearly (i.e. literally) in the tape. Candidates are often required to analyse the implied meaning of a given speech during the course of listening, like the attitude of a speaker. Moreover, marks deduction are applied for a wrong answer, which means a wrong answer not only scores zero in that question but also from taking away marks from a correct answer as well. Such design originally prevented candidates from guessing an answer they did not know, but that would also be very dangerous in some confusing questions. (see controversy for details)

Paper 4 – Oral Skills Assessment[edit]

It consists of two parts, including personal presentation and group discussion, both of them are allocated 7.5% each of the total subject mark.

In the first part, personal presentation, 10 minutes preparation time is given and candidate should make a 3-minute speech based on a certain topic. Sometimes, candidate is asked for describing a picture in 3 minutes.

After the personal presentation, group discussion takes place. Group discussion normally consists of 5 candidates in a group, they have 5-minute preparation time, after preparation, each candidate has 1 minute for the first round speech, when all candidates have done their first round speech, 10 minutes time will be given and they can discuss a topic freely.

In personal presentation, some personal topics are asked and in group discussion, topics are related to major events or common issues.

Paper 5 – Extra Readings[edit]

This is a school based assessment taking through the Form 6 and 7. Students are required to read at least 5 books and finishing the related assessment given by the school. Book reports are the most common format, but group presentations, or even in-class tests are allowed.

Actually there are no restriction towards the book as long as it is suitable for assessments. But to prevent students spending too much time on choosing the books, guildlines, which include a list of recommended books are given to schools. Most schools will allow students to choose only among the list or directly choose 5 books from the list for students by their own.

To prevent schools from giving too many exordinary grades to students, the points of this section will be adjusted by the performance in examination.

The list of recommended books contains about 30 books about Chinese culture, ranging from novels or cultural studies to historic reports. Among the list of the books, Tangshan Earthquake is always on the top favour list of books, as the prologue of the book was one of the 26 required passages in the old Chinese Language syllabus in HKCEE (The current new syllabus does not have any required passages).

Controversy of new format[edit]

Since 2001, the HKEAA has decided on an across-the-board revamp upon the format of questions in the exam. These changes include the replacement of questions on prescribed texts with open-ended questions in the questions on culture paper. This was HKEAA's attempt to prevent candidates from note-memorising the suggested reading materials. This, however, was dismissed by a number of candidates as a move towards the subject turning out into a saliva subject (吹水科, Jyutping: Ceoi1 Seoi2 Fo1), in which candidates concentrate on writing large amounts of verbose text, neglecting the actual quality of the contents. [2]

In 2005, the format of the Reading Comprehension paper was changed from speed reading of various articles to fine reading of only three articles, without prior notice. The move stirred up much controversy from some candidates, some of whom teased the words, which featured in one of the comprehension texts. The HKEAA reiterated its stance that there has not ever been a "specific" format for the exam, and thus insisted that there was nothing wrong with the paper.

Another event happened in the Listening exam of 2007, in which there was a part asking students to determine whether marked sentences were correct or not, based on the whole recording. There were 10 questions, carrying 2 marks each. In that part, if a candidate answered a question correctly, 2 marks were awarded but if he answered it wrongly, 2 marks were deducted. No marks were given or deducted for empty answers, though. If a candidate answered all the questions, with 5 or less being correct, he would end up having no marks for that section, but if he filled 5 boxes all being correct, he would have got 10 marks. This stirred up controversy among candidates, claiming that the marking scheme was not fair. They said that all questions were compulsory, so there should not be any advantage to those who left some of the blanks empty, by deducting marks for wrong answers. The HKEAA said that this system of marking had been in practice for years to prevent students guessing answers, but in fact, this type of marking had appeared only in table-type questions, in which candidates were required to tick some of the boxes in the table, but not in questions in which all blanks should be filled.

List of subjects (2007)[edit]

Although the number of subjects offered is large, choices are still limited as each school is able to offer only a few subjects on the list due to budget constraints, restrictions on combinations of subjects as well as the actual time allowed to cover the large syllabus of different subjects. In addition, some of the subjects are not popular. Note that one can not take the A and AS of a subject at the same examination. Students may take a maximum of 7 AL and/or AS subjects in one examination, though only a few students have actually taken 7 subjects since 2004.

  • Applied Mathematics A/AS 1
  • Biology A 4
  • Business Studies A
  • Chemistry A/AS 4
  • Chinese History A/AS
  • Chinese Language and Culture AS
  • Chinese Literature A
  • Computer Applications AS 2 4
  • Computer Studies A 2 4
  • Economics A/AS
  • Electronics AS 3 4
  • Ethics and Religious Studies AS
  • Geography A
  • Government and Public Affairs A/AS
  • History A/AS
  • Liberal Studies AS
  • Literature in English A/AS
  • Mathematics and Statistics AS 1
  • Physics A/AS 3 4
  • Principles of Accounts A
  • Psychology A/AS
  • Pure Mathematics A
  • Use of English AS
  • Visual Arts A/AS
  1. A/AS Applied Mathematics may not be taken with AS Mathematics and Statistics
  2. AS Computer Applications may not be taken with A Computer Studies
  3. A Pure Mathematics may not be taken with AS Mathematics and Statistics
  4. Practical Subjects can be only taken by either School Candidates or Candidates has been taken that subject in previous HKALE examinations.

Past results[edit]

Sometimes, for some AS-level subjects, only less than 0.05% of the candidates can achieve grade A.[6] However, there is always more than 0.05% of candidates achieving grade A in the full A-level counterpart of the subjects concerned. The AS-level syllabus of a certain subject is a selected part of the AL syllabus, but the questions in an AS-Level examination are as deep as the full AL counterpart. AS-level papers share some of the questions with the AL counterpart and in those questions, the marking schemes for both A-level and the AS-level are identical.

1996 – 2007 HKALE Statistics of candidates' results in Use of English

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
A % 0.9 0.9 0.9 1.0 0.9 0.9 0.9 0.7 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.7

1996 – 2008 HKALE Statistics of candidates' results in Physics (AS-level)

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
A % 1.8 0.2 0.5 0.4 1.8 0.1 0.5 0.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.3 0.9

Future development[edit]

The Education Bureau of Hong Kong has announced that in 2009 the new schooling structure, under which all students receive 12 years of pre-university education, will be implemented. The HKALE will be last administered in 2012 and merged with the existing Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination to form the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination at the end of the new, three-year senior secondary curriculum. The HKALE in 2013 will be available only for students taken the exam before and cannot be used as fulfilling JUPAS requirement.

As an aftermath of the abolishment, sixth form colleges are no longer needed. As a result, the first and now only such college in Hong Kong, PLK Vicwood KT Chong Sixth Form College, has changed mainly as a senior secondary school.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A small number of local students may enter university with other qualification(s), either via the Early Admission Scheme in JUPAS Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (between 2002/03 to 2010/11), or via international examination results like GCE A-Level for students not studying local curriculum.
  2. ^ The Cantonese slang is presumably derived from the word "吹水" (Jyutping: Ceoi1 Seoi2, lit. blowing saliva), as defined in Comparative Database of Modern Chinese and Cantonese Vocabulary, developed by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which is equivalent to "吹牛" (Pinyin:Chūi Niu) in Modern Chinese. The latter is defined in Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage as "bragging".

Further reading[edit]

  • Hong Kong Education Department (1981), [7]. Retrieved on 14 May 2005.
  • Tang, Kwok-Chun and Bray, Mark (2000). "Colonial models and the evolution of education systems – Centralization and decentralization in Hong Kong and Macau". Journal of Educational Administration 38 (5), p. 482.
  • Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (2003). Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination – Regulations & Syllabuses 2005. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. ISBN 962–570–976–2

External links[edit]