By Leow Si Wan
SIXTEEN schools have taken a massive step towards greater holistic learning by doing away with end-of-semester examinations for their Primary 1 pupils.
These prototype schools, comprising both neighbourhood ones as well as established names, use a variety of methods to gauge pupils' progress that are more qualitative than just pure grades.
For years, many parents and pupils have complained about an education system which places too much emphasis on examinations, leaving young children snowed under by big exams.
Most Primary 1 and 2 pupils here have to take two major examinations each year - one at the end of each semester.
Last year, a high-level panel appointed to overhaul primary school education recommended that schools do away with major exams for Primary 1 and 2 cohorts.
In three years' time, the Ministry of Education (MOE) expects all primary schools to embark on holistic assessment, relying more on consistent feedback on pupils' progress, strengths and weaknesses than raw test scores to help children move up.
Teachers from the 16 schools - which were chosen by MOE - have been attending ministry workshops and designing new assessment tools and lessons for English, mother tongue and maths - the main subjects at lower primary.
At Haig Girls' School in Joo Chiat, for example, Primary 1 pupils are not graded at all during the first semester. In the second semester, they show how much they have learnt via skits, show-and-tell sessions, writing reflections in their journals, role-play and mini tests, among other activities. Some of these tasks are graded during the second half of the year.
School principal Constance Loke said: 'The whole exercise is not just about doing away with exams or looking at alternative assessment models. It is really about the holistic development of the child.'
Other novel ways of assessment include group conversations in mother tongue so teachers can gauge speaking standards, arranging patterns using solid shapes to test comprehension of shapes and patterns, and poetry recitation during English.
To help them judge their own progress, pupils are given checklists of what teachers want them to know.
Peer review is also practised, as well as reflections on what they have done and learnt, so teachers know what they have enjoyed and absorbed.
On the whole, schools welcome the space to develop children without the pressure of preparing them for exams.
Keming Primary vice-principal Cheum Foong Yee said: 'The feedback to pupils has become more prompt and frequent... The use of rubrics, exemplars and checklists also allows them to set learning targets.'
There has been more collaboration among teachers, greater pupil engagement and a less stressful learning environment to ease children into school, said principals.
Due to these benefits, some schools such as Da Qiao Primary School are looking into implementing holistic assessment even at Primary 3 and 4 levels.
The main challenge has been convincing some parents and teachers that the move is a sound one.
Some parents have been concerned that their children will not be sufficiently prepared for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in Primary 6, while teachers also needed to be convinced about the rationale behind a change in assessment mode, said Da Qiao's level head of English, Ms Rezia Rahumathullah.
One parent all for the change was Mrs Angie Gill, whose child is a Primary 1 pupil at Keming Primary in Bukit Batok.
Said the 40-year-old primary school teacher: 'I have been a teacher for 18 years and I am for this change. There is no one-off grading, and children are assessed in a year-long experience. It is more enjoyable and the process phases them into the primary school.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.