Another dot in the blogosphere?

A not-so-transparent outcome?

Posted on: February 13, 2015

The press had a blast last Friday when the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) announced that entire Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) papers from the last three years would be sold to the public.

The response from the public was predictable.

Entire GCE O and A level papers have been available for generations of students, so why did the SEAB do this after years of holding out? The official reason was to reduce over-preparation

However, this response creates more questions than answers. Has anyone asked and convincingly found out if the release of high stakes exam papers at the secondary and junior college levels has reduced over-preparation? If so, might a comparison of pre-teen and teenaged learners be valid?

Perhaps the move is a social engineering experiment which is part of a larger plan for changing the mindsets of stakeholders. The larger plan is a jigsaw puzzle of changes in the last three years:

  • the push to label every school a good school
  • not announcing the country’s top PSLE students
  • de-emphasizing the importance of grades and refocusing on values
  • the rise of vocational education
  • the posturing on the value of basic degrees

Social experiments take time and face serious obstacles.

This social experiment will take years to monitor even as we hope to gain from increased transparency and lowered stress of exam preparation. The ones that gain immediately from the release of full PSLE papers are publishers like Popular, the neighbourhood publishers (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), and test preparation centres. There is money to be made by meeting the demand for these papers and stoking the fear and anxiety that high-stakes exams bring.

A social experiment is not a scientific one because it is less controlled. Other ingredients in the pot, like kiasu parents, are confounding factors. Kiasuism is a staple of our diet and telling parents not to hot-house their kids is like telling them to stop eating rice.

Our kiasu mentality and tuition culture are formidable obstacles against change. The main weapon that leads the charge for change is transparency.

Being transparent means being to see through something. In this case, the exam question transparency allows for more open discussion about the quality of the questions. Schools, tuition centres, parents, and most importantly, students, will be able to better prepare for the exams.

The stress of taking a high-stakes exam will not go away. However, the stresses associated with over-preparation or under-preparation might be reduced.

In the long run, I would like to see the continued transparency and discussion leading to better questions. Not exam questions, but questions about the PSLE as a sorting mechanism when children are just 12-years-old. This transparency is a long-term solution to looking past symptoms of kiasuism and unnecessary tuition, and dealing with the root problems instead.

Ta Prohm Roots (view on black) by mendhak, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  mendhak 

How did I arrive at that conclusion?

Our kiasuism is a result of our notion of meritocracy which starts with how well our kids play the schooling game. Success is measured almost solely on test and exam results, hence the premium placed on playing the game well.

If parents feel that teachers and schools cannot help their kids succeed, they purchase that insurance or enable the result with tuition, be it remedial or enrichment or both. When kids do well on paper, this justifies the kiasuism and reinforces tuition-dependency. This perpetuates the processes of testing and private tuition.

Some people see excessive testing and unnecessary tuition as problems. They are not. They are symptoms of more insidious problems with conventional schooling.

One need only revisit recent history of test design and schooling to realize that they were designed for the industrial age. Industry is about mass production and standardization. It is driven by one-size-fits-all efficiency. While that has put cars on our roads, smartphones in our hands, and nearly identical Big Macs in our stomachs, the quality control based on standardization and efficiency suit machines and food but not people.

Put people through schools based on industrial processes and there will be kick back. Teachers struggle with limited production (curricular) time and mass treatment (large classes) because they are counterintuitive to development time as well as nurturing and coaching small groups or individuals. Mass implementation and standardization go against personalization and individualization.

Teachers eventually realize that their students are not products of teaching that undergo quality control (tests) at the end of production lines. But people are malleable and adapt to the circumstances. People learn to be products. Parents with the means outsource coaching and preparation so that their children pass those tests.

The problem is the design of schooling. Testing and tuition are merely symptoms. The transparency of how exams like the PSLE are designed could lead to the questioning of our quality control and sorting mechanisms. In concert with other systemic changes, this could lead to the questioning of the design and purpose of schooling.

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