Exams authorities put a spin to the record-low four top scorers in this year's Diploma of Secondary Education Examination, saying the overall performance of the more than 60,000 candidates was encouraging.

The number of perfect scorers who obtained this year's top level of 5** in all seven subjects they took decreased significantly from last year's record of 11 to four -- three girls and one boy. 

The decline comes with an eight percent drop in the total number of candidates as a result of the continuously falling number of secondary school students, said Tong Chong-sze, secretary general of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.

A total of 57,127 school candidates and 11,001 private candidates sat for the fifth DSE exam. The oldest, a 69-year- old candidate, took six subjects while the youngest, a 12-year-old, took one.

"Statistically, they [perfect scorers] only make up a very small portion of the exam takers and it's not quite meaningful to compare this change," Tong said.

"Of course, these high achievers should be acknowledged, but they still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. We should encourage other students as well."

Six students with special education needs, all from mainstream schools, showed satisfactory performance scoring 5** for three or more subjects. 

The percentage of day school candidates who got 25 points or higher was up by 0.4 percent, from 4.6 percent last year to five percent. It is equivalent to getting level 5 or above for all of the best five subjects.

A total of 23,611 students, up 1.9 percent, reached the minimum entrance requirement of the eight government- funded universities of at least a score level 3 for Chinese and English subjects and level 2 for mathematics and liberal studies.

However, there are just about 15,000 University Grants Committee- funded undergraduate places available every year. This means that about 1.6 students will have to compete for one quota. 

Tong said that it is fair to say that those who scored 22 or above have secured an entry ticket, but candidates who scored between 19 to 21 points should prepare to apply for other available courses. 

The authority also said that three students were penalized for cheating. Two students tried to look at other candidates' answers and the third used a mobile phone to check relevant information on the Internet. All three were disqualified for the subject. 

Tong declined to say how they were caught red-handed. "We want to send a message to candidates that we will know if they cheat," he said.