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Look Beyond Results? MOE’s Latest Move, Explained

MOE's latest news

If you haven’t been closely following the Ministry of Education’s plans to “focus on the true spirit of learning,” here are the changes that Singapore students will soon see:

  • Less stress for younger students: Primary 1 and 2 students will not have to worry about any weighted assessments or exams, beginning 2019.
  • Some mid-year exams removed: By 2021, all mid-year exams would have been removed for “transition years”—Primary 3, Primary 5, Secondary 1 (the change takes effect in 2019), and Secondary 3. This is to help students adapt to the breadth and depth of their new curriculum.
  • Fewer weighted assessments: Apart from exams, there will be other weighted assessments from Primary 3 all the way through secondary school. However, this will be limited to one weighted assessment per subject for each school term, from next year.
  • More teaching time: The removal of mid-year exams should free up curriculum time (estimated at three weeks per two years). This time will ideally be used to stretch out learning or deepen understanding.
  • A “holistic” report book: Teachers will move towards using “qualitative descriptors” to report on their students’ progress. If there are marks, they will be rounded off to whole numbers. Class positions and other “academic indicators” will be removed. (Details here.)
  • Lower-primary education awards to reward “positive learning orientations”: These include diligence, curiosity, a collaborative spirit, and enthusiasm.

Parent reactions to the news have been muted or mixed—it’s still early days and although parents may feel relieved, they may be unsure of what the future holds.

“Examinations have become such a comfortable security blanket that a large part of the education experience revolves around examinations,” Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said. “As a system and society, we have been over-reliant on this security blanket.”

He noted two concerns that parents had raised:

  • What if the education system “slackens?” To this, Ong responded that teachers would not have to rush through the curriculum, which would lead to better learning. He added that there is still a system of tests and exams in place. “Remember, we are starting from a point of very high rigour,” he said. “Now, we are just calibrating it to have a better balance between joy and rigour.”
  • What if schools and tuition centres compensate by churning out mock assessments and exams? Ong said he had the support of schools, and urged tuition centres not to hinder the national effort “to better prepare our young for the future.”

MOE's latest move

Other questions from the public since the end-September announcement:

How can we gauge a student’s progress without exams? Are teachers equipped and objective enough to assess students in a holistic way? For now, the MOE’s official statement is that it will “guide schools to use qualitative descriptors to report students’ learning.” Parents will have to await more details about this process.

In the meantime, consider this: in a commentary for TODAY, Adrian Kuah asked if local parents were using exams as a yardstick for parenting. “The complex enterprise of raising a child, a dynamic collaboration between home and family, cannot be gauged by the simple measure of the examination and the grade,” he said.

What are the “qualitative descriptors” that will be used in the report book? A clear definition is essential, wrote Zane Ng in another TODAY piece.

Will high-ability students be shortchanged? “Students who put in extra efforts to do well in their studies will not be able to see how much they have improved, or how good their performance is relative to the class and the year’s cohort,” Ng added.

But as Kuah (see above) noted, the “end-game is to cultivate creativity and foster innovation, both of which wilt easily in the heat of excessive competition.” If exam-smart students can redirect their efforts towards exploring interests and solving problems, this will ultimately be beneficial to them.

Will students have fewer opportunities to experience competition? Healthy competition can be good for a child’s development, suggested Channel NewsAsia’s Lin Suling. Competition develops resilience and other essential skills, such as coping with negative emotions. With fewer exams, parents may need to find other ways to help their children build a “robust response to pressure.”

Is it finally time to scrap the PSLE? The official word, for now, is no. Education Minister Ong addressed this earlier in the year, where he agreed that the PSLE was not a perfect system. “But it happens to be the most meritocratic, and probably the most fair of all imperfect systems,” he said. “If we scrap it, whatever we replace it with to decide on secondary school postings is likely to be worse.”

Will there be changes for junior colleges too? “Our engagements with junior colleges tell us that there is a more complex set of issues in JCs, one of which involves preparing students well for the A-Levels in order to enrol into universities,” said Ong during an education seminar in September. “So we will conduct a separate review for junior colleges.”

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