Sunday, February 01, 2009

Learning and training

Someone asked me, "What's the difference between a test and an exam?"

I would have brushed off the question, thinking that he just wanted to split hairs, except that this question has gained a certain significance with the announcement by the government of the intention of scrapping exams for Primary 1 and 2 students and replacing them with tests to be held throughout the year.

Ever since this announcement, many Singaporeans have weighed in on the issues. Many feel that the absence of exams at P1 and 2 will disadvantage students when they eventually take exams in P3. There's this thing about practice and pain that almost all Singapore parents of school going children are all too familiar with. Right from Primary 1, if not earlier, parents engage private tutors to grill their children on how to work out problems and answer exam questions. If the private tutor did not have an inventory of practice questions for their children, his/her competence could be called into question. One wonders then if our more 'successful' primary school students are exam-smart or just simply smart? Of course, one can be both but a lot of cynicism has been expressed over exam-only-smart students.

So perhaps it is the right thing to do, abolish exams for P1 and 2 students and get them to really learn and not merely be trained, like you would a dog. But doubt lingers, and I am not convinced that you can brush aside such doubts. The current exam-heavy regime of education in Singapore will still be there - the PSLE, the GCE 'O' levels.... As many parents point out, from P3 onwards, exams will determine the options, directions and schools that their child can take and go to. And if you don't train them early, especially when they are young, their ability to cope later becomes questionable. Of course, the really smart ones will adapt quickly, but those needing coaching will now, ironically, get more extra-curricular coaching in anticipation and preparation for the P3 exams and beyond. After all, it is a conventional wisdom in government to take the long-term view. And this has filtered down to the governed(?) Perhaps schools will also offer such coaching because they will also be ranked. No principal wants his/her Primary School to be ranked last. It isn't good for the school's image and certainly damaging to morale and prospective promotions of teachers and principals in the dog-eat-dog world of education in Singapore.

So what is the difference between tests and exams? I would venture that, as far as anxious parents are concerned, the difference is like night from day. Somehow, exams are viewed as a more serious form of assessment and thus a true validation of the competence of their children's performance compared to tests, even if tests are held more often throughout the year. If the latest government initiative is carried through (and there is little reason for it not to), we might see tests evolving into mini-exams. This will mean an increase in the anxiety for parents, students, teachers and private tutors throughout the year.

Pity the educators.

See also:
Primary education in Singapore
Review of Primary education in Singapore

Image: Author:gracey

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