SINGAPORE: A few days ago, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung said that the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring model might not be the silver bullet to de-emphasise grades, but was part of a “significant reform” of the entire education system that would achieve this goal.
He was speaking in response to parental concerns that this new scoring model did not appear to bring significant changes as students would still be sorted and differentiated according to their examination results.
Is the education system evolving fast enough in order to better equip our students for the future?
SWEEPING REFORMS INTRODUCED OVER THE YEARS
The Ministry of Education has introduced a series of reforms to the education system over the past two decades with the intention of de-emphasising the primacy of academic grades and placing more emphasis on other goals such as character development, the development of 21st century competencies, fostering the joy of learning and encouraging lifelong learning.
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For instance, various integrated programmes were introduced in 2004 for top-performing secondary school students to free them from the pressure of preparing for the high-stakes General Certificate of Education Ordinary-Level examinations.
The idea was that these students would then be better able to develop other non-academic attributes such as creativity and leadership.
That same year, the Direct School Admission scheme was introduced to accord priority to non-academic talents during admission exercises for secondary schools and junior colleges, and subsequently, polytechnics too.
In addition, in 2012 the Ministry of Education stopped announcing the names of top PSLE scorers and banding secondary schools according to their academic results.
More recently, the number of tests and examinations in primary and secondary schools has been reduced.
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A NUDGE TO MOVE AWAY FROM GRADE CONSCIOUSNESS
The aim of this new PSLE scoring model appears to align with the broader intent of these other reforms.
Among other objectives, it seeks to narrow the range of PSLE scores and move away from the current norm-referenced system where students’ scores are calculated with reference to how well their peers have done.
In addition, there will be a narrower spread of cut-off admission scores for secondary schools in order to reduce the differentiation among secondary schools in terms of these scores.
Furthermore, parents and students are being encouraged to consider a basket of factors, such as school culture, co-curricular activities and niche programmes, when selecting a secondary school, instead of basing their choice largely on a school’s admission score range.
But how far can these existing and future reforms go in terms of pushing the education system further in the direction of moving away from our national obsession with academic grades in the direction of better preparing students for the future?
REVIEW OUR NATIONAL OBSESSION WITH GRADES
Attitudes, beliefs and behaviours are proving rather difficult to dislodge despite almost two decades of reforms.
For instance, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged in his 2013 National Day Rally speech that many parents still had strong preferences for schools that they perceived to be strong in terms of academic results.
He acknowledged that competition was intensifying and the focus on examination performance had come at the detriment to a focus on learning.
Reflecting this obsession is the fact that the private tutoring industry continues to thrive and morph in direct response to various policy reforms.
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It is clear that many parents still view education as a positional good, and that different schools and educational pathways offer different chances of “success” in life.
It is natural for parents to view education policies more in terms of what they mean for their children’s life-chances than the policy implications for macro-level goals such as equity and providing a common space for social mixing.
This tendency therefore lends itself to considerable anxiety over a host of issues such as admission criteria, assessment load, and greater permeability across various educational pathways.
The reality is that the education system is still very much a mechanism for sorting students into different schools and bands.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this if one holds the belief that students have different talents and that schools ought to best cater to these differences and nurture students to their fullest potential.
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Another reality parents must also come to terms with is that it is impossible and undesirable to expect identical educational outcomes for every student.
The active strategising by some parents to help their children gain a competitive edge in school and secure the best possible academic outcomes stands at odds with other policy objectives such as fostering the joy of learning, promoting greater inclusivity and social mixing in schools, and inculcating 21st century competencies so as to better prepare students for the workplace and for life in general.
The Ministry of Education has already tried reforms to curricula, assessment, admission systems and permeability of educational pathways.
What more might need to be done in order to truly move towards de-emphasising grades?
THE VALUE OF ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
Many parents have seen in their own lives and in the lives of others the importance of academic achievement in securing access to higher incomes and more prestigious jobs.
It is probably impossible to expect any overnight changes in this way of thinking, especially when hiring practices continue to accord great importance to academic achievement.
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At the same time, it is obvious that many top figures in politics, business and other professions are drawn from the ranks of those who have excelled in school.
In addition, academic grades have for far too long been commonly viewed as the prime or even sole criterion of individual “merit” in the context of the national meritocratic ideal.
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Previous efforts to give more weight to other forms of merit in the education system have not been entirely successful.
For instance, the Direct School Admission scheme led to some parents helping their child to develop stellar individual portfolios in non-academic talents, evidence that the scheme is fuelling an increase in the admission stakes for prestigious secondary schools, without any let-up in the pressure to succeed academically.
This side-effect led the Ministry of Education recently to revise the scheme to downplay the impact of portfolios during admission interviews.
There are arguments in favour of keeping academic grades as a key criterion of merit on the grounds that this is fairer to all students as they are judged on their performance in key national examinations and can demonstrate their hard work and individual effort.
Another argument is that de-emphasising grades will devalue the importance of doing well academically.
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But then again, it has become increasingly clear that academic performance is to some extent dependent on home-based factors such as parental support.
Singapore continues to wrestle with the issue of how best to determine merit and success within an education system characterised by competitive examinations that function as sorting and gate-keeping mechanisms.
The path towards the goal of de-emphasising grades will likely continue to be a slow one.
Jason Tan is associate professor at the National Institute of Education.