Testing and learning – How Singapore does it

Testing and learning – How Singapore does it

The cover story with a full front-page spread on the Straits Times of Singapore on September 29 was headlined “Fewer exams for students, less emphasis on grades”. Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie reported that in the first two grades of primary education there would be no tests from next year, mid-year exams will be scrapped in many of the primary and secondary grades in the next three years, and student report book will not mention class ranking, pass/fail and comparison of marks.

Singapore already has a world-class public-school system; in fact, Singapore sets the standard for the world. The Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) measures competencies of 15-year olds across some 70 developed and developing countries (no South Asian countries participate) in language, math and science. Singapore regularly comes out among the top three along with Korea, Hong Kong, City of Shanghai in China, and Finland—ahead of USA, UK and other European countries.

Besides giving a front-page coverage, the main story was followed up by a full-page analysis under the heading

“Parents too can play a part in re-kindling joy of learning”, by the same writer on page A8 and a full-page feature story on page A6 by another correspondent Amelia Teng with the heading “Report Books: No class or cohort positions”. This extensive reporting was followed up the next day with another full-page giving parents’ perspective on why details in kids’ progress is needed, written by reporter Teng. Another column titled “Dispelling three fallacies about examinations” followed on the third day by Professor Lim Sun Sun of Singapore University of Technology and Design. All of these indicate the seriousness accorded to school education issues by the principal national daily.

Despite Singapore’s stellar performance, educationists and citizens are concerned whether too much of academic content is being stressed, children are placed under too much pressure, and children’s social and emotional development are neglected; and most importantly, if children have the chance to discover the joy of learning.

A PISA study found that Singapore was also at the top among participating countries on student anxiety, mental stress, even student suicide—often pressed by overanxious parents to excel.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung of Singapore, unveiling the new “learning for life” reforms in a press conference, said, “… coming in first or second, in class or level, has traditionally been a proud recognition of a student’s achievement…[the child needs to understand] from a young age that learning is not a competition, but a self-discipline you need to master for life.”

Singapore has a competitive Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the end of grade 6, which, among other things, determines school choice for students. It is held over four days in October, about two hours each day, on students’ skills in English, Mother Tongue, Math and Science. Many educators are demanding that PSLE should be eliminated in its present from and replaced by an assessment approach in line with the “learning for life” goals.

Since 2010, school-based assessment of students in Bangladesh, with public examinations not until grade 10 and 12, has been replaced by competitive, high-stake, national, centrally administered public examinations at the end of grades 5, 8, 10 and 12. The intention was to put teachers and schools under scrutiny, set some common standards of performance, and satisfy over-anxious parents.

In the shuffle, the effect on children was forgotten. And the hype about the virtues of frequent examinations by politicians and officials, always on the look-out for quick-fixes, did not allow a dispassionate look at the consequences of making students totally pre-occupied with preparing for and taking tests, rather than engaging in and enjoying learning. Frequent exams became the remedy for the perceived decline in students’ learning outcome.

Ditching exams of course is not the whole answer. Singapore has been taking other right steps. Teaching in primary and secondary school is a well-paid and coveted job. There is keen competition for a place in teacher training institutions and would-be teachers are superbly trained through a four-year degree programme. There is required and systematic professional development in-service. Teachers have and are encouraged autonomy and creativity in the classroom. Classes are well-equipped, schools are well-resourced, and 20 to 30 students are taught in a class. There is continuing review of curriculum and excellent learning materials and textbooks.

The point clearly is that the focus needs to be on active and engaged learning rather than on testing. The counter-productive and perverse consequences of too many public exams since 2010 have been well documented including a surge of private coaching, commercial guide books, rote memorisation, desperation for guessing questions, cheating in exams, question leaks, incentive for authorities to show high pass rates and so on. (See Education Watch Report 2014, Whither Grade 5 Examination, CAMPE.)

Two years ago, advocacy and evidence collected by researchers and CAMPE led to the recommendation to the government to drop the grade 5 public exam and re-think student assessment. But exams continue to reign supreme and learning is a lesser priority.

Populism has its place in politics. The combination of populism and sycophancy is a poisonous brew when difficult questions need to be resolved.

When noise of election politics engulfs everything, it is difficult to give sober attention to matters of quality of school education and how student learning should be improved and assessed. The major political groups claiming their stake on political power are yet to come up with a manifesto or plan on what they may do about addressing our education problems. Ultimately, this is equally important as or more so than the upcoming election.


Manzoor Ahmed is Professor Emeritus at BRAC University.

Source: The Daily Star.