Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim (Sengkang): Although I personally dislike taking tests – and as an educator, I lean toward minimizing the use of quizzes and exams – I am actually pretty decent at them. My wife, for all her innate talent and creativity, and bless her heart, turns out to be pretty bad at them. Yet tests are a common feature in the education landscape, both here and around the world, and most of us endure them, for good or ill.
The ubiquity of tests and the varied performance of otherwise, like comparably-talented individuals, has resulted in an active debate about the value of high-stakes, standardised tests.
One important reason for such variability – and for anyone who has experienced that stomach-churning sensation come testing time – is that test anxiety is real, can negatively affect performance and is unrelated to actual ability. Another is that individual motivation differs when confronted with the prospect of a test and this motivation is only weakly associated with performance.
Studies of university admissions based on making test results optional reveal no evidence of changes in application volume or yield rate, but conversely, improvements in the diversity of applications. Indeed, when COVID-19 struck, a host of universities chose to suspend testing as a requirement for entry and have chosen to retain this practice even after the pandemic. This list includes august institutions, such as Amherst, Brown, Cornell, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, WashU in St Louis, Williams and Yale.
All this has led to a re-examination of the merits of high-stakes tests. Diane Ravitch, an education policy analyst that once was an advocate of testing and who oversaw the development of such tests in US schools, now call for an abandonment of standardised testing.
The evidence aside, the reality is that a reliance on grades and test results are becoming less and less critical in many important settings.
When I was in graduate school, it was common knowledge that those who excelled in the coursework component of the programme would not necessarily go on to become the best researchers. The top student in our first year dropped out in our second, to become an actuary, rather than see through the rest of the PhD programme. In contrast, one of our other mates, who had failed several of our first-year comprehensive exams, eventually went on to graduate, is now a practicing economist at a central bank and routinely publishes papers in academic journals.
Beyond academia, more and more companies are eschewing formal traditional test-based metrics. Google famously does not hire on the basis of grades and no longer even requires a college degree, preferring to evaluate applicants on the basis of actual work produced.
The Workers’ Party proposal is to introduce an optional 10-year through-train programme (10 YTS) from primary 1 through secondary 4 allows parents who wish to allow their children to bypass the PSLE to do so. Thus, their first major examination will be at secondary 4.
Children develop at different rates and this option allows certain kids to learn at a pace that is more suited for them. Importantly, offering the extra room for children to blossom and to reach their full potential before they turn 16 could actually be even more important than allowing them to skip a major test at the age of 16.
Certain schools already have a variation of 10 YTS. The Integrated Programme (IP) already allows students in secondary schools to skip the “O” Levels and proceed directly to their ultimate high-school exam, such as the “A” Levels – Catholic High, Hwa Chong, Raffles Institution (RI), Victoria, St Nicholas, among others; the IB – Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) and St Joseph Institution (SJI); or the high-school diploma, which is the case for NUS High. This proposal merely suggests an extension of the programme to a different high-stakes standardised test.
Importantly, this option will complement, but not replace, non-10 YTS tracks. Students who wish to continue taking the PSLE may still do so. Perhaps more critically, this proposal does not mean that frequent teacher feedback, in the form of other feedback via other than high-stakes standardised testing should be de-emphasized. In fact, there is solid evidence that such feedback, along with other practices such as increased instructional time and specialized tutoring, is what distinguishes effective schools from those that are less effective. The key is not the frequency by which tests are administered, but rather to treat the interaction between teacher and student as an interactive, ongoing dialogue.
Ministry of Education
28 February 2023