The controversy over the history paper for the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination has kept raging. The Education Bureau (EDB) has requested the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) invalidate an exam question about Sino-Japanese relations at the centre of the controversy. On the other hand, a teachers' group and a student organisation have announced plans to apply for judicial review if the question is struck out. No matter how the HKEAA reacts, it is likely that the row will further escalate and candidates will be the most affected. Whether exam questions should be set in the form of ''pro-con analysis'' when cardinal issues of right and wrong are concerned is something that must be reviewed. However, even if the design of the question is disputable, the interests of candidates should be given the highest priority in the aftermath of the incident. As the history examination has concluded, any attempt of scrapping or overturning it would hardly be fair to any candidate. In view of the heated debate in society over the question, it should not be included in past papers or the future curriculum for students' revision and practice. At the same time, unless the authorities can really find a way that treats all candidates fairly, the exam question should not be scrapped in a rash manner as it will affect the marks and grades of candidates.
The controversy over the exam question is the latest example showing that any issues in relation to China can easily become highly politicised amid serious rifts within Hong Kong society and high tensions between the city and the mainland. In the question concerned, two pieces of background information about Japanese assistance to China in the late Qing and early Republican period were provided. Candidates were asked whether they agreed with the statement ''Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900-1945'' using the sources provided and their own knowledge. The EDB criticised the design of the question as ''seriously hurting the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people who suffered great pain during the Japanese invasion of China'' and requested the HKEAA invalidate the question. Members of the education sector reacted differently. Some accused the EDB of political interference while others agreed that there was a major shortcoming in the design of the question. A group of students and teachers have said that if the HKEAA strikes out the exam question, they will apply for a judicial review as well as an injunction to stop it.
''Pros and cons analysis'' is a common form of questions in secondary school examinations. However, whether this format is suitable for all kinds of topics certainly deserves careful thought. Academic freedom is very important in universities, which are places for academic pursuit and research. In comparison, secondary schools are, after all, places for learning basic knowledge and establishing one's concepts of right and wrong. Guiding secondary school students through the contemplation of topics concerning cardinal issues of right and wrong from a ''pros-and-cons'' perspective is not appropriate.
Now that the design of history exam questions has aroused a storm, the HKEAA should look deeply into the problem. It should uphold the basic principles of the education profession and review its exam-question-setting mechanism to see if there are any blind spots or areas of improvement. Nevertheless, candidates should not be the ones to bear the consequences of ill-designed exam questions. Cancelling the question after the exam will have wide ramifications and possibly affect the grades of the candidates. Whatever remedial action is taken afterwards is bound to have shortcomings that are unfair in the eyes of candidates.
The authorities can think of other technical ways of handling the matter. They can remove the question permanently from the practice papers in the future rather than invalidate the question at this moment. The history exam has already ended. Even though the design of the question was found to be unsatisfactory afterwards, what is done cannot be undone. The DSE examination affects a student's chance of further studies. This year's candidates are the most important stakeholders involved. Their interests should be the top priority.