SINGAPORE: For those growing up in Singapore, it has become a rite of passage that they go through not once, but at least twice a year: The dreaded academic examinations.
And it is the time of the year again, when the majority of students across the Primary and Secondary levels are busy mugging or sitting for the mid-year exams.
However, this time round, many others will instead be staging a fashion show, trying their hand at sand-art animation and wushu, learning to write haiku while taking in the sights at the Singapore River, or learning about algebra through manga or anime characters, for example.
Starting this year, as announced by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung last September, schools have done away with mid-year exams for Secondary 1, as well as all graded assessments and examinations for Primary 1 and 2 pupils.
Mid-year exams will also be removed in phases over the next three years for Primary 3, Primary 5, and Secondary 3.
Apart from Secondary 1, some schools have gone ahead to remove mid-year exams for other levels this year ahead of the impending changes.
Nevertheless, students in Secondary 1 this year and their parents — fresh from the stress of the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination — are among the first to reap the benefits of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) moves to reduce stress and emphasis on grades, and to inculcate the joy in learning.
Among other things, the scrapping of mid-year exams has freed up about two weeks of curriculum time which means more opportunities for students to engage in self-discovery through lessons within and outside the classrooms.
It also means less anxiety and stress for parents. For the teachers, they say they now face less pressure to rush through the syllabus before the mid-year exams. They also have more time to come up with creative lessons, and do not have to be saddled with marking of exam scripts.
Hua Yi Secondary School principal Sandra Gwee said: “The most immediate benefit of the changes has been the additional bandwidth that we have, which has allowed us to spend more time discussing student matters, different aspects of their learning, and to have deeper conversations with stakeholders and parents about our school approaches.”
Yet, as observers had earlier predicted, the reduction in the number of graded assessments and exams has inadvertently driven some anxious parents to turn to tuition agencies to fill the void.
While some tuition centres are also taking the cue from the schools in slowing down the pace of teaching, at least one centre — Kent Ridge Education — said that it has seen a spike in enrolment amid concerns that the absence of exams will make it harder for parents to gauge how their kids are doing in school.
These concerns were mainly voiced by working parents. “Because they don’t have time to monitor their kids’ progress at home,” said Kent Ridge Education principal Max Wong.
MAKING LEARNING FUN
In the past few years, Hua Yi Secondary School had been holding a one-day “Learning Fiesta” in May, which included carnival rides and a singing competition.
The school removed mid-year exams this year not just for Secondary 1 but Secondary 3 as well.
And its principal Ms Gwee, 58, who took over the reins in 2017, decided to tweak the annual initiative this year since the removal of the mid-year exams for Secondary 1 and 3 opened up some “free time”.
Renamed “Learning Festival”, the event later this month will be extended to five days and students will have the chance to demonstrate their understanding of topics such as robotics. For instance, some students are organising a fashion show relating to healthcare technology.
They can also participate in programmes and activities such as sand-art animation.
“For students, an important part of learning and development is having an opportunity to apply their learning in authentic context and to receive recognition for their learning,” said Ms Gwee, who has been an educator for 35 years.
Over at another secondary school, students are enticed to learn mathematical concepts through the stories behind them, such as who came up with those ideas and how. The stories are told through animated manga and anime characters, after their teacher surveyed students’ interests.
The teacher, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said that students became “more excited” when the lessons had a touch of multimedia. He added:
I could see that their motivation to learn fluctuate during lessons with and without the use of multimedia.
At Zhonghua Secondary School, the additional free time is used to teach Secondary 1 students to write Haiku poems and fiction by the Singapore River. Students in the school’s art elective programme also visit the National Gallery to learn the history of the artefacts exhibited there.
At Waterway Primary School, which has removed its mid-year exams for Primary 3 students, these pupils now get to learn science through an investigative study on “man and its environment” where they present their findings via skits and drama.
In response to queries, an MOE spokesperson said that it is up to schools to decide how best to use the time which has been freed up.
“Schools also understand that the mid-year examinations should not be replaced with additional practice or high-stakes tests,” said the spokesperson.
On its part, MOE helps schools adjust by providing resources and professional development for teachers on the use of formative assessment practices to help students understand their strengths and improve their learning.
Principals and teachers said that teachers now have more time to come up with creative lessons, gauge students’ interests and bounce off ideas with their colleagues.
Mrs Wee-Kwan Liam, principal of Waterway Primary School, said: “Changes to assessment do not change the curriculum, the intents, contents and processes.
What they do is to give teachers more time to plan for and implement learning activities to make learning more authentic, fun and effective.
A 37-year-old science teacher from a secondary school in the east, who declined to be named as she was not authorised to speak to the media, said there is now “more breathing space” for teachers to experiment with lessons.
She recounted that in the past, she had to rush through six topics prior to the two weeks of revision before the mid-year exams.
But this year, for instance, she managed to get her Secondary 3 biology students to create a website to explain how osmosis and diffusion work, using animation and other methods.
“Previously, I don’t have the time to let students do that,” she added.
Ultimately, students benefit from the slower pace of teaching, said teachers interviewed.
A teacher in her 30s from Meridian Secondary School said: “Yes, it’s less stressful for teachers, but students are the biggest beneficiaries. Imagine you’re in the students’ shoes, jumping from Primary 6 to Secondary 1 is daunting. It’s a big jump having to study from four to eight subjects.
So, it helps that teachers follow the students’ pace instead of rushing through the syllabus.
‘LESS STRESS, MORE JOY’
When she had to sit for examinations during primary school, Amirah Prisca, 13, recounted that she used “to get fever, vomiting and anxiety”.
The Secondary 1 student at Assumption English School is glad that she does not have to go through that experience again at this time of the year.
“I feel less stressed. It gives me a little more play time and I will also have more time to study for the year-end examinations. That is still important because it tests how well you are doing,” she added.
Her mother Priscilla Ramachandran, 35, who works as a preschool educator, said that the removal of mid-year exams “has been a great relief”. “I still monitor her progress as usual and keep encouraging her,” she said.
Some parents noted that the removal of mid-year exams has no bearing on their children’s learning at home. Finance manager Ang Keh Sin, a mother of two boys in Secondary 1 and Primary 5, said her eldest son “still does his revision every night, we still buy him assessment books”.
Others, however, said it makes a difference — they can space out the revision and set aside more time for family activities.
Nevertheless, all the parents interviewed agreed that the changes have helped them feel less stressed.
Dr Jeremy Lim, a father of three children aged between 10 and 16, said his family has “piles of exam worksheets and assessment books which the children go through over the year”.
But since his son, who is in Secondary 1, does not have mid-year exams, ploughing through the study materials will be “more spaced out”.
“That said, without the mid-year exams to prepare for, there is more time to spend on enrichment activities like going to the park, visiting the zoo and bird park, watching plays and musicals,” said Dr Lim, who is a partner at the global consultancy firm Oliver Wyman.
For Ms Wang Hanqing, a mother of two boys in Primary 1 and 3, the removal of exams provided “some relief”. More importantly, it gives her “a bit more space to focus on the process of learning” and not to be fixated on grades.
“I just teach them (her children) the value of putting in consistent work,” said the 37-year-old freelance writer whose kids do not have any tuition.
MOE previously said that from this year, all students from Primary 3 to Secondary 4 or 5 will not have more than one weighted assessment per subject per school term.
Schools can still conduct assessments, although the scores will not count towards overall results.
To gauge students’ learning progress, schools use various assessments such as class work and homework, the MOE spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said that by gathering feedback from parents and students, the ministry will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes and identify areas of support needed by schools.
STAKES RAISED FOR YEAR-END EXAMS?
While most parents and students spoken to welcomed the scrapping of mid-year exams, some were concerned that it could raise the stakes of the year-end exams, given that these now carry higher weightage.
Previously, the weightage given to year-end exams was 40 per cent. This has gone up to between 50 and 60 per cent in some schools, according to teachers and principals interviewed.
St Anthony's Cannossian Secondary School student Jadyn Tan, who is in Secondary 3, said that it has become more stressful for her to know that her year-end exams would count towards such a big part of her overall results.
Her final-year exams results will make up 60 per cent of her overall results, and the remainder will come from weighted assessments which account for 10 to 15 per cent each.
Jadyn noted that if she and her classmates do not do well in their year-end exams, their overall grades would be “pulled down”. She said:
In the old system, the weightage for the mid-year exams, year-end exams and common tests were quite equal. So, the stress wouldn’t be too much on the year-end exams. We also had class tests in the old system (which contribute to overall scores), unlike the new system that solely depends on the weighted assessments.
However, not all schools have increased the weightage of their year-end exams, following the scrapping of mid-year exams.
Hua Yi Secondary School, for example, has kept it at 55 per cent.
Its principal, Ms Gwee, reiterated that students are encouraged to “do consistent work throughout the year, without focusing only on common tests and exams”.
“In fact, the weighted assessments in the first three terms serve to inculcate in students the ownership of learning and instill the values of consistent work that builds up to the end of year exams,” she said.
HOW TUITION CENTRES ARE ADAPTING
The concerns of students like Jadyn could be compounded by the slower pace of teaching in schools, said Mr Lim Wei Yi, who is the co-founder and managing director of tuition centre Study Room.
Mr Lim said that his centre, like some others are slowing down their pace in line with what the schools are doing. Even so, his centre is still teaching ahead of the syllabus taught in schools, he added.
For example, he noted that previously, Secondary 1 students enrolled at his centre would have learnt about summary writing and composition by March.
However, some of the Secondary 1 students currently taking English language classes at the centre have yet to learn these as of this month.
Mr Lim felt that while it is good that schools can now focus on injecting creativity in lessons through podcasts and drama for example, there are still exams at the end of the year that students have to sit for.
Though students could be less stressed now, it also means that the stakes for the year-end exams could be raised.
“As they may not have been consistent with their work, there is a higher likelihood of a last-minute scramble then, which results in even more stress for the child,” said Mr Lim.
But principals and teachers spoken to disagree.
A secondary school teacher, who declined to be named, said that while the pace of teaching has been reduced, learning is now done with more depth.
And teachers still have to cover the syllabus within a certain time frame, she added.
South View Primary School principal Sharida Batcha Sahib noted that the removal of mid-year exams for a particular level cannot be seen in isolation.
The impact of removing mid-year exams for the school’s Primary 3 students would be felt across the other levels, she pointed out.
This is because when a Primary 3 student moves up to the next level and finds that the pace of teaching is different, it can be a shock to them and they would struggle to cope, she said.
“We look at learning in its totality, throughout the six years in (primary) school. So, when students are exposed to a consistent pace and what the exam format is like, they won’t feel stressed out,” she added.
Last year, shortly after Mr Ong announced the removal of some exams, he noted that there was a greater concern that tuition centres could simulate exam-like conditions.
"I strongly urge them not to do so," said the Education Minister then. "Doing so would just be preying on the apprehension and anxieties of parents and students."
There had been previous news reports about some tuition centres rushing in to fill the gap and soothe anxious parents, by introducing more classes and assessments.
One centre, Gavin's Tuition, also planned to make available its in-house mid-year and year-end exams to students not enrolled with it.
READ: The Big Read: No exams? No problem! Some tuition centres rush in to fill gap, soothe anxious parents
When contacted last month, the centre’s director Gavin Ng said it has set aside 50 slots for its in-house mid-year exams, and there are interest from students not on its books.
Following Mr Ong’s announcement last year, Kent Ridge Education’s enrolment has increased by 10 per cent.
Mr Wong, the centre’s principal, said this was driven by parents who were worried that they would not be able to get a good gauge of their children’s progress in school, following the scrapping of the mid-year exams. They were also concerned that their children could become complacent, and as a result, struggle with the year-end exams, he added.
“One of the first things they ask me before they sign up is ‘Do you have review exercises or mock exams?’” said Mr Wong, whose centre has 21 branches islandwide.
“They feel that exams give a better indication or a reality check of their children’s progress. They do not want to end up in a situation where they delay the ‘medical check-up’ only to get a rude shock later on.”
Mr Wong said that for the past decade, students at his centre have been doing practice exam papers. These are not graded as the focus is not on scores but students’ understanding of the subjects.
From these assessments, the centre then tailors its lessons to the students’ strengths and weaknesses, he said.
“We are not undoing the ministry’s work,” said Mr Wong. “We are complementing the schools’ efforts because we help students in areas which they are weak in, which schools might have insufficient time to do so. We are all in it for the same thing (helping students) and it’s not just about business.”
Some parents spoken to admitted that they were worried about the new policy.
The scrapping of mid-year exams might make it harder for them to gauge their children’s academic performance, they said. This is especially so for working parents, who might not have the time to coach and monitor their children’s progress.
Ms Joscelin Kwek, a 37-year-old managing director of a public relations firm who has two boys including one in Primary 1, reiterated that working parents should not depend on exam grades to determine their child’s progress.
Instead, they should gauge their children’s learning through homework and assessments.
“Take the time to go through their homework to see if they have understood the concept, which is more important. You don’t really need a score to know if your kid is doing well or not,” she said.