Test of life or a life of tests?


One statment in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Speech caught my attention. He had called for preparing our children for the test of life rather than a life of tests.

Prime Minister’s 2012 National Day Message

The statement sounded familiar, so I searched online. In 2004, when then-Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam launched the TLLM initiative, he had said, “The teacher is the heart of ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ (TLLM). TLLM is not a call for ‘teacher to do less.’ It is a call to educators to teach better, to engage our students and prepare them for life, rather than to teach for tests and examinations.” The search also returned MOE’s document on TLLM, which amongst other things had called for teachers to achieve this same objective for students in almost the exact words as that of the Prime Minister’s.

2004 was 8 years ago. Have we moved closer towards this goal? Are we tuitioning more to keep pace with grades inflation in schools? Are parents pushing children harder for tests, especially for the high stake examinations? What changes have been undertaken to move closer towards this objective set out in 2004?

Perhaps the call was sincere. It is a noble objective that no one can disagree with. Perhaps the schools did try hard to meet the objectives.

Albert Einstein once said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

TLLM may have been implemented and fine-tuned along the way, but our system of high stake examinations, streaming and branding of schools have not. In fact, MOE has implemented even greater differentiation of schools. Integrated Programme from secondary through college has now been expanded to take in approximately the top 10% of each cohort. Specialised Normal Technical schools will start from 2013, where such schools will only accept students in the Normal Technical stream.

PSLE continues to be the all-important sorting examination, where one examination will determine the stream and type of schools a child will get into. There is low mobility between streams. I had observed this in talking to parents and educators. My parliamentary question in February 2012 confirmed that around 6% in the normal technical stream were able to progress to normal academic. My anecdotal observation of movement between other streams is around that figure or even lower.

Parents naturally worry for their children for fear of them getting into a less desired stream. All schools are supposed to be good schools. Do parents believe this? If they do, why are parents so anxious every July to get their children into the most desired primary schools despite MOE’s best efforts to assure parents that all schools are good? If all schools are good, why are grades output so different between top primary schools and the least performing ones? After all, students enter at primary 1 should theoretically be evenly spread out so we should have a good spread of better and weaker students academically amongst schools.

Why are parents spending more and more money each year on tuition? Why are there Gifted Education Programme (GEP) preparatory classes that commands such high fees unless parents are desperate for their children to be in GEP? And why do they want their children to be in GEP so badly? I had written an earlier blog post about the Direct School Admission and the Edusave Entrance Scholarships for Independent Schools (EESIS) advantages which GEP students get over other students. GEP is now seen by parents as an early admission into top secondary schools, determined by GEP tests at age 9.

How can we achieve PM’s objective under such an environment where there are constant testing and streaming to sort students out, and when schools are measured based on the results of the students they produce? Granted that MOE had implemented other forms of measurements to grade the performance of schools in non academic areas as well. But do parents look at these other forms of measurements or are they just looking at the grades output of students? Even within academic streams, schools are now neatly sorted according to the PSLE T-Scores of students they admit. Take a look for example, at the Express stream in secondary schools. When a school’s PSLE T-Score cutoff point is say 220, you will get students at 220 and mostly just above it, with only a handful who may have scored 230 and above and had selected that school despite being able to go to a school with higher T-Score cuttoff. Years of branding and ranking of schools have created this natural sorting mechanism where parents will now sort the schools out within each streaming category. Parents anxious for their child to be in a ‘better’ school will resort to tuition to push the grades higher, creating an inflation of grades over the years.

Readers of my blog post can judge for themselves if since 2004, we had moved closer towards preparing students for the test of life and not a life of tests. I cannot think of how we can change the situation unless the system is changed. It will be insanity to assume it can be changed under the same operating context, with parents as kiasu as ever and even more so over the years, and with a meritocratic system that measures success rather narrowly by grades.

One change I had suggested in my Committee of Supply parliamentary speech in March is to consider pilot schools that run integrated programme to progress a student from primary 1 to secondary 4. There are parents like myself who do not care for putting our children into a few top schools, but we still have to go through PSLE. There are the dreaded consequences of slip up in just those few hours of tests for a child at age 12, with low mobility for them out of the a less desired stream should they slip. Parents like me will still have to subject our children to a life of tests. I called only for pilot schools in my proposal because I know there are parents who would want their children to be pushed and tested to get to the top schools. Hence, they can go to the regular schools and take PSLE. I was pleasantly surprised to find my fellow parliamentarian, NMP Mr Laurence Lien making a similar call in that same Committee of Supply speech advocating almost the same thing. Like me, he and a group of parents do not believe in sorting their children at primary 6. However, we have no alternatives to turn to currently if we still want our children to receive their education in Singapore.

This is but one proposal that can be implemented if we do want to change the system; if we think the current system is not able to move us closer to the objective that had been set. Do we believe a change in the system is required? Do we have the will to make that change? Will the situation improve in another 8 years without any change? What do you think?

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7 comments on “Test of life or a life of tests?

  1. Talk is cheap. If you really dig up all the National Day speeches, you will see a trend. I will leave this for someone who has the interest in looking into hyperboles!
    On the topic, it is unlikely we are ever going to get away from tests, the question is how much is enough and how do we know it is enough.
    They should just get rid of PSLE and extend it till maybe age 14 or 15, just to really do a evaluation of a student’s best talents (and not their ability to pass a test or exam).

  2. Had a chat with a retired GP teacher (proudly annouced she was from 1 of 5 top JC) and in Marine Parade hawker Centre on Monday. After talking for close to half-an-hour, realised while she boasts she is most analytical being a GP teacher, this retiree actually doesn’t understand life. If your objective is to prepare students for life, then to have teachers who doesn’t undertsand life (sheltered by the rigid system) amounts to blind teaching the blind. Tests of life teaches about life. The tests in schools are tests of how much is retained of a particular siubject knowledge. With Internet, we can retirieve such info without committing to memory. But lessons in life can only be learnt through battering tests of life.
    the more top the school is the smoother the path of life is our current system. We need to educate our educators before it is too late.

  3. Pingback: Daily SG: 10 Aug 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  4. The rings in life to toughen a person have to start from young and it is like the rings of a bamboo for it to withstand strong wind and not to break. Important to be beaten while young and not when one’s bones or rings have already hardened. Watch how a fine Japanese sword is made. There is a lesson in a well tempered sword for all mankind.

  5. In a life journey, unless a person makes efforts to maintain a pure innermost attitude, there will be many tests, trials and tribulations [some minor and some very severe] to straighten up or polish the person before it is too late or beyond redemption or recall.

  6. There is not enough attention given to children with special needs like autism. Please don’t marginalise them.

  7. If they want the brightest , just use IQ test, select them yearly from every stage and pull them into a special school, then leave the rest alone. The reasons are humane,cos they learn differently.

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