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Remember when our value was tied to how well we fared in exams? To the A’s or B’s that we got in our subjects? Well this is all going to change for our children. 

In an unprecedented move, our Ministry of Education had announced that they will be making several changes to exams and assessments in school. Some of these changes include removing weighted assessments (including class tests, group projects) and exams for Primary 1 and 2 students. Mid-year exams will also be removed for Primary 3 and 5, as well as Secondary 1 and 3 students.

These are bold changes, as Singaporeans have long questioned the effectiveness of our education system and the emphasis we seem to place on academic grades. 

It’s a move welcomed by many, but along with these changes are several other concerns. For one, when we take away one of the major means of gauging a students understanding and proficiency of a subject, what yardstick are we going to assess them with moving forward?

Speaking at a recent forum with parents and students, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung posed the question back to parents: What is the yardstick that they will use to measure their success as a parent?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because all our life up till the point where we start working, we have been measured by the A’s, B’s, or C’s from our performance on test and exam papers. These grades have inadvertently transformed into something our society uses to define our worth. It is why we have a society that deems students in the ‘normal’ stream as of a lower calibre than those in the ‘express’ stream. 

These cliched perspectives are so deeply entrenched in our society that it is hard for us to envisage how else we can measure the success of a student if it is not through exams and grades. 

Are Exams Important?

In a quick poll I did on Instagram, 33 out of 41 respondents actually voted that exams are good for students. 

Respondents are largely in their twenties or thirties—an age group of people that will soon become parents themselves

These are the same group of people who, through my understanding of our generation, have complained about how we have wasted so much time in our earlier years learning and being tested in subjects that have no relevance to our lives today. 

However, 80% of them maintained that exams are still important, because it helps to assess a student’s grasp of a subject.

“Exams provide feedback. Its replacement must still critique a student.”

It is because of the kiasu culture we have in Singapore that have turned it into a competition of grades rather than a way to assess a student’s progress, as parents want their kids to ace exams to get into better schools, which they believe will give their child a better shot at success. 

This is further egged on by the disparity in which we judge and treat people of different academic backgrounds. It lies in the way scholars are said to enjoy a faster career progression, and in the way some we tend to compare the quality of students based on their alma mater. 

Even if you and I don’t judge people by their academic level, the society will. We still compare schools and we still regard graduates from esteemed schools, like Harvard, with higher respect.

How Do We Measure Somebody’s ‘Worth’ Without Grades? 

The purpose of removing exams is to reduce the emphasis on academic results, but more importantly, what are we replacing it with?

One 27-year-old, Vic, explained that it’s less of abolishing exams than changing our perspectives: “I think students’ education or knowledge can still be measured with tests but the stigma of failing a test should be abolished. What I’m proposing is a mindset change.”

She also proposed for an abolishment of a grading system, which is one of the changes implemented by MOE, where details like grades and class position will be removed from end-of-year assessments. Secondary school students will also be streamed according to subjects instead of the ‘Express’ or ‘Normal’ streams that we had in our time. 

In this case, the changes are also a way to free up time for students to pursue non-academic interests. In order to get there, however, schools and teachers need to be able to create a wholesome environment that enables students to achieve that.

On the aspect of achieving academic rigour, suggestions I got from respondents include challenging students with problem-based assignments to cultivate in them analytical and critical thinking abilities which will help them in the future. 

Some of the suggested ways to assess a student without relying on exam papers and grades

Other suggestions include group projects or learning trips that allow students to explore a broader range of non-academic interests. These are alternatives that will help expose students to both academic and non-academic areas of interest. 

Unsurprisingly, most of the (serious) suggestions given were centered around the idea that a student should be prepared to handle the intricacies of real-world and work situations, more so than acing exam papers. 

The problem lies in our obsession with the ten-year series, which is characteristic of students who are more preoccupied with learning how to ace exams than learning the concept of what’s being taught in each subject. 

One respondent, who’s currently assisting her father in running her family’s F&B chain, said: “A lot of students just learn how to deal with exam questions, instead of understanding the concept of how the content or solution work. Knowing and understanding how things work goes a longer way than knowing how to score in exams.”

At some point, all of us would have talked about how there are many things we learnt in school that have absolutely no relevance to our lives today. I, for one, have no idea how to apply pythagoras theorem to my life or line of work—not that I can even remember the concept today.

With that said, it was my decision to pursue a career that does not require proficiency in math. There are plenty of other professions that requires one to apply maths at work, like engineers. 

Subjects like maths or history will not necessarily help us in our jobs, nonetheless, I see them as a foundation that sets the base for us to further pursue our preferred vocations in our tertiary years. If anything, these valuable general knowledge help us form a more well-rounded view and understanding of the World. Let’s not forget that Singapore’s education system is seen by outsiders as one of the best in the world, and perhaps it is for these knowledge we are armed with that makes us ‘superior students’ to the rest of the world. 

Though, arguably, having to study all those ‘foundational subjects’ means a longer route to success. In comparison, Koreans (for instance) can start training in K Pop from as young as 11. Then, at 17 or 18 where an average Singaporean would have just gotten the opportunity to start pursuing vocational studies, these K Pop trainees would have already made their debut in the industry. 

Which brings us back to the question of whether Singapore, as a whole, is capable of embracing students with non-academic passions.

Mindsets Have To Change

If a student wishes to pursue career paths in performing arts or culinary arts, will schools and educators be able to offer resources to nurture this student in those areas? 

Should there already be programmes and resources in place, will parents and by extension, our society, be able to accept and encourage a child to pursue such non-conventional pathways at the tender age of 11?

At the end of the day, this all depends on what we, Singaporeans, want to place value in: In achieving academic excellence before attempting a vocation, or in embracing a more progressive education that not only allows, but encourages students to explore beyond the English, Math, and Sciences, from a young age. 

Regardless, these changes are a work in progress, and whether our children in the future reaps the benefits of this system is heavily dependent on how we, as future parents, react to the changes that MOE has rolled out. 

For as long as we have kiasu parents around, the competition to be The Best will always be there. 

At the end of the day, it boils down to what we want to instil in our 15, 10, or even 3-year-olds. If grades are not the way forward, what do we want to teach and assess our kids with? 

With qualities like kindness and compassion? With communication skills like speaking and presenting? Or with a mix of soft and vocational skills to help them navigate the complexities of the world? 

Also read: Is There A Need For Better Sex Education That’s More Than STDs And Abstinence?.
(Header Image Credit: Wikipedia)