Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

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Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education
HKDSE logo.svg
TypePaper-based standardised test
Developer / administratorHong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority
PurposeAdmission to undergraduate programs of universities or colleges
Year started2012 (2012)
DurationVaries by subject
Score / grade rangeScored on scale of 1–5, in 1-point increments, then 5* to 5**
Countries / regionsHong Kong
LanguagesEnglish, Traditional Chinese (Papers can be written in Simplified Chinese)
Annual number of test takersDecrease 56,305 (2019)[1]
Prerequisites / eligibility criteriaSchool Candidates: Completion of senior secondary education Private Candidates: No
FeeLanguage subjects: HK$644
Other subjects: HK$431
Initial Fee: HK$494[2]
Scores / grades used byUniversities in Hong Kong through the JUPAS system, recognised by universities worldwide via the UCAS tariff points
Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education
Traditional Chinese香港中學文憑
Simplified Chinese香港中学文凭
Notice board shown in HKDSE examination centres.
Candidates leaving the exam centre at Queen's College after sitting for the HKDSE English Language Paper 3 Listening and Integrated Skills examination.

The Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) is an academic qualification offered by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA).[3] The HKDSE examination is Hong Kong's university entrance examination, administered at the completion of a three-year senior secondary education. Since the implementation of the New Senior Secondary academic structure in 2012, HKDSE serves as replacement for the previous Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (O Levels) and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (A Level).[4]

Under the NSS (New Senior Secondary) structure, pupils are required to study four compulsory "core subjects" (Chinese and English languages, mathematics and liberal studies) and choose one to four "elective subjects" amongst the 20 options available.[5]


Under the new examination framework, a number of subjects in the HKCEE and the HKALE have been combined to suit the varying interests and abilities of pupils. Candidates are examined on core (compulsory) subjects and on electives of their choice. Most candidates are expected to take four core subjects and two or three electives (see the list below).[6]

Each HKDSE subject is composed of a compulsory part and an elective or extended part. The elective or extended part is a "module" of a student's choice, and concentrates on a specific topic or skill. An elective module is an integral component of the standard curriculum, while an extended module is designed for students with specific aim(s) or those who have higher ability(ies) who may want additional knowledge and skills.

  • Elective Part Example: The elective part of the HKDSE English Language curriculum takes up 25% of the lesson time. Modules in the elective part are divided in two groups: "Language Arts" and "Non-Language Arts", both of which are about learning English in different contexts and media.[7] During the examination, candidates can choose to write a higher level (Paper B2) or a standard level (Paper B1) paper. Finishing B1 allows the candidate to achieve a maximum grade of 4 while writing B2 allows a 5**.
  • Extended Part Example: HKCEE Mathematics, Additional Mathematics, HKALE Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics (except the Mechanics part of the subject, which has been cancelled in the HKDSE),[8] and Mathematics and Statistics were merged into a single new subject simply known as, Mathematics. Candidates who wish to study Mathematics to a higher level have the flexibility to choose whether they would like to take one of the extended part modules: "M1" Calculus and Statistics or "M2" Algebra and Calculus.[9] However, the extended modules are considered as half a subject, despite having syllabuses amounting to a full subject, so they are not as attractive to students, and there has been a decline in number of pupils choosing them.[10][11]

Written examinations of Category A subjects are mostly conducted between early March to early May. Oral examinations and some other subjects are administered earlier. Testing for Category C subjects takes place in June; French and Spanish may be taken the previous November. Category B subjects do not have an oral examination.

Before the exam, candidates have a chance to become familiar with the different level descriptors and samples and may use them as objectives for their study. When results are released, candidates can have a clearer picture of their attainment level. Thus, tertiary institutions and employers also have more accurate and robust information for admission or recruitment purposes.


The HKDSE is divided into three different categories, including 24 senior secondary subjects, over 40 applied learning subjects and six other language subjects.

Category A: New Senior Secondary Subjects[edit]

Category A subjects are traditional school subjects and their exams are administered by HKEAA. Both core (compulsory) subjects and elective subjects are in the criteria of Category A.[12] Results of such subjects are widely accepted for university admission.

For Mathematics, grades for the extended part (Module 1 and Module 2) are listed separately on the certificates issued by HKEAA.

Core subjects

As for Mathematics, in addition to the compulsory part, candidates can optionally take one of the following extended part modules:

As for Liberal Studies, the subject curriculum features six modules, including:[13]

  • "Personal Development and Interpersonal Relationships."
  • "Hong Kong Today."
  • "Modern China."
  • "Globalization."
  • "Public Health."
  • "Energy Technology and the Environment."

However, except in extreme cases, a passing grade in an extended part cannot be used to offset a fail in a compulsory part for university admissions (especially for UGC-funded courses).


Elective subjects can be chosen by students according to their interests and strengths. However, a majority of secondary schools do not provide all 20 choices to the students due to the shortage of teachers specific fields.

According to the Registration Statistics for 2018 released by the HKEAA, the most chosen subject is Physics, with a total of 11,658 candidates in the HKDSE. The exam allows students to choose one to four elective subjects. Around 70.4% of students choose a combination of four core subjects and two elective subjects, while 17.4% of them chooses four core subjects and three elective subjects.[14]

2019 HKDSE subject combinations of school candidates[14]
(elective subjects include Categories A, B and C subjects):

  4 core subjects + 1 elective subject (9.0%)
  4 core subjects + 2 elective subjects (70.4%)
  4 core subjects + 3 elective subjects (17.4%)
  4 core subjects + 4 elective subjects (0.2%)
  Other (3%)

Category B: Applied Learning Subjects[edit]

Category B subjects are offered by certain providers. Assessments of these subjects are administered by the same, and the results subject to the HKEAA's adjustment. They are vocational-oriented subjects to satisfy the needs of employers.

Applied Learning Subjects may be used by tertiary institutes for admission purposes, in which case it is seen as the equivalent of achieving a Grade 2 in a traditional elective subject for a subject status of "Attained" and Grade 3 or above for "Attained with Distinction". Starting from 2018, "Attained with Distinction" is further refined to "Attained with Distinction (I)" (equivalent to Grade 3) and "Attained with Distinction (II)" (equivalent to Grade 4 or above). However, a number of prestigious universities in Hong Kong do not view Category B subjects with the same status a traditional elective would enjoy for admission purposes.

Areas of study include:[15]

  • Creative Studies
  • Media and Communication
  • Business, Management and Law
  • Services
  • Applied Science
  • Engineering and Production
  • Applied Learning Chinese (for non-Chinese speaking students)

Category C: Other Language Subjects[edit]

These may be used to replace Chinese for university admissions for students whose mother tongue is not Chinese, but it may not be used to replace English. It may also be chosen as an elective for native Chinese speaking students, however it will not have the status of an alternative language requirement. In some cases, instead of a Category C subject, an IGCSE Chinese Language pass (or similar Chinese qualification) is required for admission in some institutes for non-Chinese speaking students.

Category C subjects adopt the same paper as the General Certificate of Education AS-level. These are provided and marked by Cambridge International Examinations.[16]

  • French
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Spanish
  • Hindi
  • Urdu

Educational institutions and/or departments are not obliged to recognise results of Category B and C subjects, though they might consider them as references.

School-based assessment[edit]

The school-based assessment (SBA) available for a majority of subjects (notably includes three of the four core subjects, Chinese Language, English Language and Liberal Studies, with the exception of Mathematics) reduces reliance on a "one-off" public examination as projects and reports handed in throughout senior secondary are graded and counted toward the HKDSE results on fixed weightings.[17][18]


For Category A subjects in HKDSE, the performance of candidates is categorised and released on a scale of seven levels indicated on the examination certificate. Level 5** being the highest and level 1 the lowest. Distinction levels 5** and 5* (read as "five-double-stars" and "five-star") are awarded to the two best-performing groups of candidates attaining level 5.[6] Unclassified grade (U) are awarded for absence, cheating, or an attempt not reaching the standards of level 1.[19]

Category A: New Senior Secondary Subjects

HKDSE level HKDSE mark shown in result notice Total mark Equivalent grade comparing with other exams Examination result comparison in Physics
HKALE HKCEE UCAS[20] GCE A-Level 2014 HKDSE percentile 2010 HKCEE percentile
as suggested by UK as suggested by HK
Level 5 5** (top 10% of level 5 achievers) 7 A-B A 56 A* A* 2.8% 4.8%
5* (top 30% of level 5 achievers) 6 B-C A 52 A*/A A*/A 11% 14.5%
5 5 C B 48 B A/B 27.3% 32.7%
Level 4 4 4 D C 32 D C 50.1% 57.2%
Level 3 3 3 E D 16 E D 73.8% 79.2%
Level 2 2 2 F E Unavailable Not recognized 90.4% 90.8%
Level 1 1 1 U F 98.1% U
Unclassified U U U U 100% 100%

According to UCAS, academic attainment level of the HKDSE exams are comparable to international high school leaving examinations such as the IB Diploma and the GCE A-Levels. UCAS Tariff points attached to each subject, other than both parts of Mathematics, are as shown above.

Category B: Applied Learning Subjects

Subjects Result Comparing to HKDSE Category A results
Applied Learning Subjects (excluding ApL Chinese) "Attained with Distinction (II)" Level 4 or above
"Attained with Distinction (I)" Level 3
"Attained" Unknown
Applied Learning Chinese (for non-Chinese speaking students) "Attained with Distinction" Level 3 or above
"Attained" Unknown

Notes: Category B subjects are taught to be comparable to Category A subjects with reference to the form above, to date the majority of local universities however, do not consider Category B subjects for admission by JUPAS.

Category C: Other Language Subjects

These subjects are graded by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), on grades "A" to "E" (with grade "E" being the lowest and grade "A" the highest). Achievement below grade “E” is not recorded on the diploma awarded to candidates.[21]


In the criterion-referenced grading system, experts in related subject matters establish the marking standards for each level. Thereafter, level descriptors and examples are constantly reviewed based on syllabus objectives and statistical data, including exam statistics and answer scripts. Gradings of a criterion-referenced system reflect a candidate's level of attainment in a particular subject rather than the place of the candidate in comparison to others.[citation needed]

Markers of HKDSE are mostly teachers of secondary schools.[22] They are appointed to different assessment centres to perform Onscreen Marking (OSM). Exam papers are first scanned into the database from scanning centres, then distributed to the markers through the computer systems.[23][24]

Admission to local universities[edit]

The HKDSE are designed for local students in Hong Kong to enable them to gain admission to local universities through the unified Joint University Programmes Admissions System (JUPAS).[25] International qualifications, on the other hand, are more often taken by private, DSS or international school students; these qualifications, and the schools teaching them, are becoming more popular in Hong Kong. Due to the differences between the local and international qualifications, there has been a considerable amount of concern over the emergence of a bipartite education system, based on wealth instead of merit. However, students with only international exams results cannot apply through JUPAS, which accounts for a higher portion of admissions to undergraduate programmes in terms of total intake.[citation needed]

Impact on schools[edit]

One notable impact on schools in Hong Kong is the discontinued need for sixth form colleges due to the cancellation of HKALE and 7th form. Nevertheless, some of these colleges, such as PLK Vicwood KT Chong Sixth Form College, remain in operation as senior secondary schools.[citation needed]


Unbalanced focus[edit]

The HKDSE is criticized for placing too much emphasis on the four core subjects, causing some students to neglect the elective subjects. Tsui Lap-chee, president of the University of Hong Kong at the time of the introduction of HKDSE, said that: "The Education Bureau demands universities [to screen pupils by] setting the so-called 3322 as minimum entry requirement for undergraduate programmes — a minimal of grade 3 in Chinese Language and English Language, and a minimal of grade 2 in Mathematics and Liberal Studies. [It is] insufficient for studying in universities." He proposed a minimal grade requirement for two elective subjects, which the Education Bureau rejected. He also mentioned that many students do not study the optional extended modules for Mathematics, leaving them lacking the advanced mathematics knowledge needed for science and engineering studies; it is very difficult for them to make this up in their undergraduate courses.[26]

Hindrance to admission[edit]

Since the launch of the HKDSE, the Chinese language paper is often dubbed the "paper of death" (Chinese: 死亡之卷).[27] Some have the opinion that the high expectation is well-founded since Cantonese Chinese is the daily language of Hong Kong, but every year nearly half of all candidates fail the subject. They hence lose the chance to gain entrance to a university because of the '3322' requirement. It is reported that some of the authors of passages employed in the Chinese papers found the questions in the paper difficult to answer. Elaine Yau of SCMP commented that the exam results are "proving [HKDSE as] a major hindrance to admission".[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Registration Statistics of HKDSE". Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  2. ^ "2019 HKDSE Examination Fee Adjustment" (PDF). Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  3. ^ "Introduction - HKDSE". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  4. ^ "After today, the HKCEE will just be a memory". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  5. ^ "HKDSE - Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  6. ^ a b "Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education". Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Archived from the original on 23 June 2007. Retrieved 10 June 2007.
  7. ^ "English Language Curriculum and Assessment Guide" (PDF). EMB: Senior Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Guides (Final Version). Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 10 June 2007.
  8. ^ The Mechanics part had dominated the syllabus of Applied Mathematics before other topics like statistics and numerical analysis were introduced, and it focused on applying Newtonian mechanics to analyse various types of mechanical systems.
  9. ^ "Mathematics Curriculum and Assessment Guide" (PDF). EMB: Senior Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Guides (Final Version). Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 September 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2007.
  10. ^ "側重核心科 近半DSE考生棄科學" (in Chinese). Oriental Daily. 6 January 2017. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  11. ^ "無讀新高中數學延伸部分 中大工程學院兩成新生需補底" (in Chinese). HK01. 21 February 2017. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  12. ^ "Category A: Senior Secondary Subjects - HKDSE". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  13. ^ "Liberal Studies - Curriculum and Assessment Guide (Secondary 4 - 6)" (PDF). Curriculum Development Council and The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  14. ^ a b "HKDSE 2018 - Registration Statistics (as of 15 Dec 2017)" (PDF). HKEAA. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  15. ^ "Category B: Applied Learning Subjects - HKDSE". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  16. ^ "Category C: Other Language Subjects - HKDSE". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  17. ^ "School-based Assessment (SBA)". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  18. ^ "Opinion: Hong Kong's Education Bureau made right move in suspending school-based assessment". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  19. ^ "Grading Procedures and Standards-referenced Reporting in the HKDSE Examination" (PDF). HKEAA. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  20. ^ "Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) | UCAS Qualification Information Profiles". qips.ucas.com. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  21. ^ "Category C: Other Language Subjects - HKDSE". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  22. ^ "Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority". www.hkeaa.edu.hk. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  23. ^ "What happens to your HKDSE paper after you hand in your exams?". Young Post | South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  24. ^ "Leaflet of Onscreen Marking System" (PDF). HKEAA. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  25. ^ "Your guide to applying to a Hong Kong university through Jupas: what are your options and is your choice right for you?". Young Post | South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  26. ^ "文憑試3322不足上大學 徐立之:教育局如同攞槍迫大學接受" (in Chinese). Hong Kong Economic Times. 8 August 2017. Retrieved 12 June 2018.
  27. ^ "This year's HKDSE Chinese exam was a lively "paper of death"". Young Post | South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  28. ^ "Hongkongers' university dreams dashed by HKDSE Chinese exam". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 17 June 2018.

External links[edit]