SINGAPORE - Even as the Ministry of Education considers how best to adjust the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system, a question gnawing away at the back of the minds of some is whether a national examination at age 12 is necessary at all.
A poll commissioned by this newspaper shows that only two in five Singaporeans think the PSLE is necessary. One in five stated outright it was redundant, while the others were neutral.
Significantly, more of the respondents with higher qualifications and incomes felt that the PSLE was not needed.
Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was in Singapore last year to deliver an education lecture, also raised the same question while heaping praise on educators here.
She noted then that the PSLE debate had raised two important questions.
The first was the exam's purpose and whether it was being used in the right way. The second - whether it was appropriate for children to take a high-stakes examination at age 12.
She did not want to prescribe the age at which "a high-stakes sorting examination" like the PSLE should be taken, but noted that most school systems in the world do it at age 15 or 16.
"That's when most youngsters are beginning to discover what they are good at and where their interests lie," she noted.
Dr Pasi Sahlberg, the renowned Finnish educator who gave an interview to The Sunday Times last year, echoed her comments when he asked why Singaporeans were debating T-scores and bands when they should be debating if the PSLE was needed.
As he aptly pointed out, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to have a high- stakes examination for children as young as 12. Places like Hong Kong that used to have a sorting examination for 12-year-olds did away with it a few years ago.
So, although the exam scoring system is being tweaked, this is a question that educators and policymakers should revisit, if not now then in the near future.
No doubt the PSLE may work well as a sorting examination to allocate priority for secondary school selection, but we have to carefully examine if it detracts from the more important purpose of educating young minds.
Education experts have heaped praise on Singapore for its well-designed examinations that test higher-order skills, but as all educators know, even the most well-designed examination is not able to measure what a student is capable of.
Some children are highly anxious about testing and that impacts their performance.
A system based on high- stakes examinations also disadvantages children who are late bloomers.
It also takes a deterministic view of ability and intelligence and flies in the face of recent research which suggests that ability, including academic ability, can be cultivated through effort.
Examinations also narrow the focus of education as it influences the teaching, learning and curriculum that come before it.
In theory, teachers consider the desired outcomes, plan a curriculum, teach and then assess students' learning to see if those outcomes have been met.
With high-stakes examinations such as the PSLE, the sequence is reversed.
Teachers look at what is being tested and align their curriculum and teaching to ensure that their students will score in the examinations.
In recent years Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has stressed the importance of teaching 21st century competencies, such as the ability to work in teams and connect with people from other cultures. Not to mention, nurturing values and character.
The PSLE does not test any of this.
This article was published on April 19 in The Straits Times.
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