Ready for life's tests, not just exams

Ready for life's tests, not just exams

SINGAPORE - There are mixed responses to the recent move to not reveal the highest and lowest Primary School Leaving Examination scores in pupils' result slips. More is afoot. In a few years, PSLE T-scores are to be transformed into wider grade bands, like the A1 to F9 grades dispensed at the O levels - to counter a widespread and unhealthy emphasis on marks.

Those applauding this policy shift see ample justification in wrenching the focus away from the means to the ends. Studying and coaching to the test makes performance assessment the be-all and end-all of education. This sidelines the goal of helping every child to discover his or her potential and find apt pathways for secondary education. Someone who might go on to invent a killer app or make great movies later in life is less likely to sprout from a dominant exam-centric regime - one that conjures up a clockwork identity parade of kids holding up their T-scores and schools bearing labels of their PSLE cut-off points.

However, other parents believe they are just being pragmatic in seeking more information about scores in order to assess the chances of entering a desired secondary school. If scholarships still hinge on impressive scholastic results (although the Public Service Commission has said it has widened its criteria) and a good honours degree is still mentioned by employers in job ads, they feel their children's prospects are likely to be improved in Integrated Programme schools.

Shifting parental mindsets away from this emphasis on getting ahead in a school race will be a long process, but is necessary. The pressure on students to eke out that last point (to the decimals) to best their peers has grown unreal and counter-productive. It is robbing our young of their childhoods, and opportunities to learn more widely.

In an ideal world, there would be less of an obsession with T-scores as every school is a good school. But what matters ultimately is parents' perception of a good school and what constitutes a "good life". Critically, society needs to embrace broader definitions of success in life before there is general acceptance of broader desired outcomes of education. An exam offers the instrumental value of maintaining clear, rigorous and objective standards within a public education system. At the individual level, it represents a useful tool for parents to discern interests and to shape the learning journey. When this purpose is subverted by a rat race for marks, the base assumption is that the child is not quite there yet and will benefit from hothousing. Then, character and personality development, and natural abilities and potential all get short shrift. The tenor of discussions might be different if parents believe that every child is a good child.

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