Some parents are overjoyed, others may be worried or fearful of the new policy. What do we lose and what could we gain from the abolition of mid-year exams for primary and secondary school students?
As a former teacher and a parent of two young children, the recently announced move by MOE to scrap mid-year exams for all primary and secondary schools is literally a dream come true. I’m not even going to bother with a pretence of a balanced view. In my opinion, this move is an unqualified good. The new policy is bold, but sound. My purpose in writing this three-part article is to passionately advocate for teachers and school leaders to implement the new policy in the right spirit, and for parents to finally slaughter the sacred exam cow.
In Part One, which you are about to read, I seek to reassure parents that their children will not suffer from the loss of mid-year exams. In Part Two, I try to show how important it is to embrace the new policy, not revert to old habits. In Part Three, I describe how alternative assessments could lead to a curriculum that better equips students with 21st century competencies and discuss other gains that the new policy could bring.
No more mid-year exams: What do we lose?
The anxiety caused by the PSLE, O Levels, A Levels and other standardised tests, are still the stuff of recurring nightmares for many grown men and women I know. Successful professionals will wake up in a panic, thinking, “I haven’t studied for Maths!” They then come to their senses and realise they took that exam decades ago.
So it is deeply ironic that the biggest thing we will lose with the scrapping of the mid-year exams is… a security blanket.
I once saw a movie set in ancient China with a scholar off to take the imperial exam carrying scrolls in a backpack made of bamboo. I found that really funny and familiar. Did the Chinese invent exams? Probably not. Every culture has likely at some point realised that exams are so comfortingly predictable. So formulaic.
(X aptitude in a subject + Y amount of cramming) x Exam skills like being able to write really fast = Result.
Even if we weren’t academically inclined as children, most of us parents are comfortable with exams simply because we’ve all done them. Some of us know how to ace them, the rest of us at least have some experience trying to game them. So we have some idea how to help prepare our children for an exam.
Many parents decry the undue stress exams cause their children. But I believe that the sense of security parents derive from exams is the biggest reason why our education system has been slow to change for the better. Put yourself in teachers’ shoes. For teachers, exams are, of course, the comfort zone. Testing content knowledge is our bread and butter. Getting more familiar with alternative assessment methods requires training, which can be an onerous addition to an already large workload. However, the bigger obstacle is the risk in terms of justifying to parents the grading of the alternative assessment and its impact on the overall grade received at the end of the year. Parents are unlikely to question exam results. But if teachers experiment with an alternative assessment (for example, an interdisciplinary project combining Science and Mother Tongue), parents are likely to be up in arms if their children do not do well. Why should my child suffer as your guinea pig, they may complain. So even though we try to impart to students an entrepreneurial spirit, to be bold to innovate despite potential failure, teachers are not afforded the opportunity to practice what we preach, hence the stagnation in assessment methods. The radical move by the Ministry could be just the thing to break the cycle parents and teachers are locked in.
Why are some parents worried about scrapping mid-year exams?
Some parents are already getting chills from the loss of the security blanket. Fears that have surfaced in forums in response to the new policy: If there is only one exam at the end of the year, won’t that just create more stress leading up to that exam? How will I track my children’s progress? How do I know if they are sufficiently prepared? What if come the year-end exam they fail badly because they didn’t have a mid-year to keep them on their toes so they slacked off too much?
These are all real fears. But they are also all easily resolved fears IF schools are implementing the new policy in the right spirit, and IF parents can accept and trust alternative assessments as indicators of students’ progress. Those are big IFs. They generate even more fears. How can we ensure schools implement the policy the way it was intended? What do alternative assessments even look like? Are the results trustworthy? Is there no 10 Year Series? This sounds scary.
I imagine some parents and students have previously been burned by schools not implementing policies in the right spirit, hence the fear or cynicism greeting the new announcement. To cite an example I witnessed firsthand, when it was announced in 2019 that mid-year exams would be scrapped for Sec 1s, the Literature teachers in my school got together to discuss what should be done with the freed-up curriculum time. Some felt that another Literature text should be added. Packing the syllabus with yet more content was patently not in the spirit of that policy, which was meant to help students transition more smoothly from 4 subjects in primary school to the numerous and new subjects (including Literature) in secondary school.
Read More: Do Primary School Grades Matter?
How will the additional curriculum time be used?
Now that all mid-year exams are being scrapped, teachers have the opportunity to use the additional curriculum time in refreshing ways that truly excite students’ curiosity and equip them with 21st century skills, as per the rationale for this policy, rather than repackaging traditional assessments and trotting out trite teaching strategies. Parents too have a role in partnering schools to stay on target to achieve the aims of this policy.
MOE’s recent announcement was very clear that students are not meant to be left in an assessment-free vacuum for months, with the end of year exam becoming a more high-stakes affair. So if the policy is implemented faithfully, this fear should be unfounded. We always fear the unknown, so allow me to peel back the curtain and shed light on some assessment processes so as to assuage anxieties.
Understanding the assessment process
I’ve taught at three schools, and the weighting of assessments was done in pretty much the same way. At year end, the teachers deployed to teach a particular level the following year would all get together to discuss and agree upon a Schedule Of Assessments (SOA). For instance, the teachers teaching Secondary 3 English would figure out the number of assessments, the type of assessments, the percentage weighting of each assessment, and when these assessments would take place in the year. This SOA then had to be submitted to higher management for approval.
The devil is in the details. Depending on the permutations of the variables, the amount of pressure a student feels could be very different indeed. Consider just these two combinations (bearing in mind that there are many other possibilities) and what implications they might have for your child:
– 8 timed essays, once a month, 5% weighting each. (40% total)
– March, Oral presentation (10%)
– May, Listening Comprehension (5%)
– July, Group Project (20%)
– September, Listening Comprehension (5%)
– End of Year Exam (20%)
Total number of assessments: 13
– March, Oral Presentation (10%)
– May, Individual Project (20%)
– July, Group Project (20%)
– End of Year Exam (50%)
Total number of assessments: 4
You can see that in either combination, it would be possible to fail the end of year exam but still pass overall if you had done better in your other assessments, so it is not catastrophic if, for whatever reason, you had a really off day. The combinations above each have their pros and cons. Teachers consider a range of factors before reaching a consensus on a SOA. And every school does things somewhat differently. The Ministry does not insist on implementation of various policies in a uniform, cookie-cutter way across the board. The autonomy given to schools can be a boon since different schools have different contexts and school leaders would ideally implement policies in ways that make sense for their student profiles.
What parents can do to support their child throughout the year
So what can parents do to partner schools and support their kids? Usually the Schedule of Assessments (SOA) and Scheme of Work (SOW) are distributed to students at the start of the year. I’ve no doubt that many students throw them away and that many parents do not even know such things exist. Make your child show these documents to you. If your child loses them, contact the teacher and get a copy from them directly.
Look at the SOA and SOW carefully. What should you be looking for? First, are there assessments at regular intervals? Teachers (and parents) should be able to see a student’s progress and gauge their subject mastery through regular assessments even without mid-year exams. Second, no one assessment should be so heavily weighted that a student’s bad performance in it will devastate the overall grade. In other words, the overall grade should reflect the student’s consistent performance throughout the year, and students should not feel undue stress about the end of year exam or any other assessment. Third, teachers usually schedule one or more stakes-free practices of assessments, such as mock exams or a rehearsal of a presentation. This is only fair to the students so that they are clear about what is expected of them and how they will be graded. If the practice assessments are not reflected in the SOA, ask the teacher about whether/when those are scheduled.
When you look at the SOW, are the learning objectives clearly stated? If so, are they mainly about content mastery or is the curriculum designed to also impart 21st century skills? As the year unfolds and you talk with your child about school, do you have a sense that your child may be struggling with the amount or complexity of what is being covered in the syllabus?
If you have concerns about anything in the SOA or SOW, contact your child’s teacher and have a chat. Approach the teacher as a partner and keep communication channels open. Do not be shy about seeking more support for your child or giving feedback as the year goes on.
In one of my previous schools, the Heads of Department worked together to coordinate assessments across subjects so that major assignments would be sufficiently spaced out. Not every school may have such a system in place, so another way to help your child would be to review all the SOAs at the start of the year and keep up to date on scheduled assessments. If you find that, for example, your child has 3 major assessments clustered together in one week, you could reach out to the form teacher or Year Head to see if any of these can be rescheduled. It may help to share your concern with other parents and approach the school together.
So yes, the abolition of mid-year exams could mean the loss of a sense of security for some of us. But my next articles will show why we should have a sense of urgency about reforming our education system.
You may wish to view a video version of this opinion piece on my YouTube channel here.