Sunday 13 March 2022

Why school exams exist and what we can do about them

Budget 2022 debate: Providing more pathways to support students' aspirations
Education system changes in line with push to encourage students to pursue strengths
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2022

Nearly every year, there are calls to scrap the PSLE.

This year was no different. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) and Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa each suggested during the debate on the Ministry of Education's (MOE) budget on Monday (March 7) that the PSLE be replaced with through-train programmes.

Instead of the standard explanation that the PSLE remains a necessary checkpoint for students to gauge their learning after six years of schooling, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing went back to basics.

He raised several fundamental points that policymakers and educators have been thinking hard about in recent years, as MOE unveils changes to an education system that has for decades been known for its highly competitive nature and focus on academic results.

These include a PSLE scoring revamp and abolishing the Express and Normal stream labels, allowing students to take subjects according to their strengths.

In a lengthy response, Mr Chan made clear that the stress brought about by any major examination is unavoidable. Nor is it the aim of the MOE to remove all pressure for students.

What society can do is to change its perspective of exams and tests, and parents must first take a deep hard look at four basic questions raised by Mr Chan - why we test, how we test, when we test and what we do with the test results - to understand why exams cause so much anxiety.

Critics say that the changes by MOE do not go far enough to make any real impact, but based on previous polls, many parents hesitate to say that the PSLE should be postponed or scrapped.

In short, there is little consensus on what to do with the PSLE.

The same goes for mid-year exams, which schools had dropped for several levels in previous years, and will remove for all students by next year.

It was one of the plans announced by the MOE on Monday, to bring back the joy of learning and focus less on grades.

Most students will be relieved to have one less major exam to sit, and hopefully they will really be given more space to pursue other interests.

But the question is whether old habits die hard. The move would be in vain if parents and teachers feel it is too risky and end up replacing the mid-year paper with smaller but many more forms of assessments in school or at home.

Parents are also left wondering how exactly schools will implement the changes, and if it means a year-end exam that will carry more weight, which might just mean that the pressure builds up towards the end of the year.

A more porous system, for life

While the PSLE is here to stay, the message is clear - a pupil will not be labelled Normal or Express by his results, especially with the complete dismantling of the academic streaming system by 2024.

In its place will be full subject-based banding, in which students take subjects at varying levels of difficulty based on their aptitude for relevant subjects.

MOE is seeking to support students' aspirations through more bridges and ladders across the education system.

Under the new system, subject levels will be known as G1, G2, G3 (G stands for General), with G3 being the most academically demanding.

And more schools will offer students this choice of subjects at different levels, including those that currently offer only the Express stream.

Three such schools - Crescent Girls' School, Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Tanjong Katong Secondary School - will from 2024 take in students that would have been streamed into the Normal (Academic) course today.

This is significant also because it means more social interaction between students of different academic abilities and backgrounds.

Students in the Normal course who were placed in mixed classes have previously said that it has helped to boost their confidence and encouraged them to take up more higher-level subjects.

But this blurring of the divide will not touch schools of certain types: Integrated Programme, special assistance plan and specialised schools.

Such schools will have to do much more to increase meaningful exposure for their students to peers outside their cocoons, if they truly want to enable social mixing and not harden stratification.

At other levels, expanding the direct school admission that recognises aptitude for junior colleges and the polytechnic foundation programme will help to broaden the profile of students across institutions, and motivate them to work hard at what they are good at.

Such opportunities will not stop at graduation, with the MOE paying greater attention to the adult learning space and reviewing the mix of courses in pre-employment training and continuing education.

In the end, it matters less how a pupil fares in the PSLE or how he was sorted into a secondary school.

What is more important is that he can move up the school system, discover and pursue his strengths, and, in time to come, find the right skills for the world of work.

And there will be less need to front-load one's education before working, with the ministry looking at increasing the university cohort participation rate to allow more adults to upgrade and attain degree qualifications. This means learning will be lifelong.

Most Singaporeans may not be sufficiently convinced to veer from the tried and tested path of completing their university education before going out to work.

But it is increasingly the case that such paper qualifications may not be enough for employers, who are looking for skills and traits that may only come with certain life experiences.

It is a reminder that the traditional route of success is not the only one. When one achieves a university degree, how fast he can finish it, or how he does at one point - these should not define a person for life.

What matters more is that every Singaporean is driven to find his place in society, regardless of his starting point and even if it takes a longer time.

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