IB vs A-Level vs HKDSE: A Quick Compare & Contrast on Popular Curricula in Hong Kong

13 JAN 2022

When it comes to the high school curriculum in Hong Kong, HKDSE pops into people’s minds and is often a dreaded term. Yet, for students targeting the top universities in the world, IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) and A-Level (Advanced Level) seem to be more popular and beneficial for their applications. Is that really the case? What are the differences between IBDP, A-Level, and HKDSE curriculum? Let’s have a crash course in breaking down all of them.

Brief Introduction
IBDPA-LevelHKDSE
Run by International Baccalaureate, a non-profit foundation headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. ---------- It is one of the most popular and globally recognised international curricula in the world. As of Nov. 2021, the IBDP curriculum is applied in 5,400+ schools in 159 countries. Originating in the UK’s sixth form leaving qualification. ---------- It is the traditional high school curriculum in the UK but adapted for the international market; one of the widely recognised international curricula in the world. IGCSE and A-Levels are studied in over 10,000 schools by over a million students in 160 countries. Offered by: Cambridge International(CI) Pearson Edexcel Both are qualified with equal value.Hong Kong’s school-leaving examinations, replacing HKCEE in 2012. ---------- It is the dominant school-leaving secondary school curriculum in HK, with the majority of graduates going to university in Hong Kong.
Syllabus
IBDPA-levelHKDSE
Years of study: 2 ---------- DP core: - Theory of Knowledge (TOK) - Extended Essay (EE) - Creativity, Activity & Service (CAS) + 6 subjects (select 1 in each of the following subject groups): - Studies in language and literature (Mother tongue, usually Chinese in HK) - Language acquisition (2nd language, usually English in HK) - Individuals and Societies - Sciences - Mathematics - The Arts 3 subjects in Higher Level (HL) (240 teaching hours per subject) 3 subjects in Standard Level (SL) (150 teaching hours per subject) Ambitious students usually take 4HL & 2SL. Years of study: 2 ---------- AS (Advanced Subsidiary) & A2, usually representing the second last & final year of high school respectively. Students have to finish AS before going into A2. No core subjects. No limits on the number of subjects or combinations, but choices differ by school. Most students take 4-5 subjects in AS, then 3-4 in A2 (You can drop some of the subjects after AS, but you have to take at least 3 subjects in A2). Ambitious students usually take 5-7 subjects or more. UK and US universities admissions require 3 A2 at minimun, but this may not be competitive, especially for top schools. Optional subject: Extended Project Qualification (EPQ, a research-based subject) Years of study: 3 ---------- 4 core subjects: - Chinese - English - Maths - Citizenship and Social Development + 2-4 electives from 3 categories (Max. number of subjects a student can take in each exam: 8 = 4 core + 4 electives) Most students take 2-3 electives. It is very popular that ambitious students take Mathematics Extended Part (M1 or M2) in the exam. A good grade helps boost admissions to particular faculties in Hong Kong universities.

Extended reading: Breaking down the Top UK 10

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Assessment Structure
IBDPA-levelHKDSE
Continuous assessment ---------- Internal assessment (varies by subject): - Oral tests - Research - Practical work - Lab work - Art performance etc. External assessment: Only one written exam at the end of the 2-year course Contribution of assessment to the final grade: Internal: 15-25% External: 75-85% ---------- Grading scale: 1-0 for each DP core - Theory of Knowledge (TOK) - Extended Essay (EE) - Creativity, Activity & Service (CAS) 7-1 for each subject Max IBDP score =7x6+3 =45 Exam-oriented ---------- No internal assessment External assessment Exam held regularly — 3 per year (Exact examination dates vary across different examination boards) Both AS & A2 count for 50% of the final A-Level grade ---------- You can re-sit the class once if you are unhappy with the grade and want to improve the final result. The higher grade will be your final grade. No matter where you study, the exam scores are standardised as the only indicator of the students’ performance. ---------- Grading scale: A*-G (9-1) for each subject Exam-oriented ---------- Internal assessment: SBA (School-based Assessment) for some of the subjects It usually forms 15–20% of the total marks of a subject, depending on the subject. External assessment: Only one public exam after finishing the 3-year course ---------- Grading scale: 5**-1 for each subject
IBDP, A-Level, or HKDSE? Which best suits you?
IBDPA-LevelHKDSE
It is considered a well-rounded curriculum with both breadth and depth, like a 2-year marathon that requires students to ace every aspect consistently. Comparatively, it focuses more on practical work, cooperation in groups, and leadership besides academics. Best fit for students who are creative, self-motivated, and proactive to learn inside and outside the textbook. It is good for students aiming for universities from the US, UK, or any other country. Great preparation for university-level courses It allows students to choose interrelated subjects, and therefore to build their profession in a particular area before going into universities. Best fit for students who have developed their own interest in a particular field and are planning to apply to top UK universities. Those schools tend to accept applicants who studied related subjects to their intended major. It dives deep academically in every subject field. Best fit for students who are good at memorising, prefer passive and individual learning. It is generally better for students aiming for HK universities as they can exclusively apply to schools through JUPAS, which approximately takes up 70% of total admission offers in every academic year. For students taking IBDP, A-Level, or any other non-HKDSE qualifications holders, they have to apply via Non-JUPAS, which accounts for 30% of total admission offers only.

Conclusion & Final Thoughts

IBDP and A-Level are among the top in globally-recognised curricula, more readily assessed by admissions officers in universities around the world. HKDSE is also recognised around the world but is more beneficial for applying to local Hong Kong universities.

Still, choosing a high school curriculum is not simply a matching game. If you are aiming for a world-class university, you should pick your curriculum carefully based on ability, learning style, interests, and future plans. After that, a strategy in selecting subjects is also needed to maximise your chances of getting into a dream university. 

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