“However, the way that Singaporean students are being assessed reflects earlier approaches to education, which included a heavy emphasis on common standards among schools, academic rigour, and a focus on outcomes” (Let Teachers Design Their Own Tests, Says Expert, Miss Ng Jing Yng).
The proposal by education expert Dr. Dennis Shirley, for teachers to design their own modes of assessment, is an ambitious one (Let Teachers Design Their Own Tests by Miss Ng Jing Yng, March 30, 2013). Opponents of standardised examinations are critical of the processes of rote memorisation and pedantic regurgitation, in which students are more interested in obtaining the “right” grade, as opposed to immersing themselves in healthy teaching-learning experiences. Giving educators the liberty to design their own evaluative approaches appears to be a constructive proposal, which will reduce the emphasis on common standards.
Yet, the actual implementation would be fraught with difficulties, because our teachers are already inundated by overwhelming roles and responsibilities. Critics, who contend that an educator’s criteria might be too subjective, are also likely to emerge. While educators can be flexible with what they do in the classroom, the national examinations will not change.
Evidently, the real problem lies not with the tests or examinations, but in the way the grades or results are handled and perceived by the test-takers. It is difficult to disagree with the basic premise of a test, which is to gauge a student’s mastery of a particular subject. As with sports, the arts, and vocational instruction, there needs to be an objective way of determining how a child is doing in his studies. It seems clear to me that we should be strengthening reflective pedagogies, to get schoolchildren thinking about their performances – what could have been improved, what were the weaknesses, which subjects are more challenging et cetera – instead of being fixated upon that solitary score or grade. Personal improvements should be the focus.
I would posit that after the Primary School Leaving Examination, for instance, schools and the Ministry of Education (MOE) should help parents and their students make decisions holistically. First, the T-score must not be the sole determinant; second, there should be greater prominence – probably even throughout primary school – on exploring the reasons for a particular performance. Here, if a student gets a great aggregate score, and displays aptitude in Science, then the appropriate school can be chosen; if a student does well, but prefers to explore other areas of interest, then the choices can reflect this desire. Pathways are available.
The key is to identify a student’s strength – which should not be confined within the domains of academia – before equipping him with the requisite skills and know-how to excel. Correspondingly, tests or competitions would not prove to be as daunting for them. On the contrary, if we do away with examinations in its entirety, or give teachers free rein so that it is easier on the students, then we might run the risk of rewarding mediocrity.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.