Challenge Utility Of National Examinations

By Kwan Jin Yao

“It can be seen as a reflection of a system overly focused on marks and book smarts” (Stop Education Arms Race, Calvin Yang)

While I agree with the general observation that Singapore is “shifting away from what has been a pressure-cooker system fixated on academic achievement instead of holistic development” (ST, Aug. 3), the responsibility of reducing the disproportionate emphasis on examinations should not fall on parents alone, not to exacerbate “the educational arms race with scholastic slavery”. Central to this discourse, in fact, is the very role of examinations and assumptions of their utility; assumptions which oftentimes go unchallenged, given our longstanding reliance upon them. Therefore, if the intent is to reduce stress, competition, and the unhealthy obsession with them, then the role of examinations – the national, high-stakes ones, in particular – must be examined.

On their own, tests and examinations – if designed well, are not just antiquated evaluations of rote memorisation and regurgitation, and are coupled with post-mortems for students to reflect on their own performance – can be useful barometers of academic progress. Notwithstanding the occasional against-the-odds story, the difference in Singapore are the consequences tagged to the results achieved at the national examinations, narrowing and perhaps even determining future pathways. The $1.1 billion annual household expenditure on tuition reflects these anxieties: To pass a detested subject, to achieve that extra mark or grade, and to get a leg up on the competition. Because to score well, is to do well, in the long-term.

And in this education “arms race”, little is understood of their effects, especially on young students. The average Singaporean student takes between two and four national examinations (PSLE, ‘N’, ‘O’, and ‘A’ levels) within the education system, and even at the institutes of higher learning these assessments are afterthoughts.

And in this “arms race”, little is understood of their effects, especially on young students.

Research provides an opportunity to better understand these concerns. Perception surveys with parents and their children, at the very least, answer basic questions about choices and well-being: Whether they feel unduly stretched, if competition has had ramifications, and the reasons for tuition, for example. Perspectives of teachers can be productive too. Progressively though, recent tweaks to education policy can be compared and evaluated. Do primary school students with a confirmed offer under the direct school admission exercise feel less stress in the lead-up to the PSLE, and how do they perform thereafter? Since an intent of the integrated programme is for secondary school students to immerse themselves in broad-based endeavours, do they actually do so, and across which dimensions? These research results should be helpful starting points, guiding policy discussions and even implementation, in the future.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 5 September 2017. It is reproduced with permission.


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