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No exams, no worry?

04 Jan 2021

eveline2

This wasn’t something that mum-of-two Eveline Gan bought into initially when exams for P1 and 2 were scrapped. But 2020 changed her mind. She shares why.


2020 was a milestone year for both my daughters – and I am not talking about the impact of COVID-19. My elder one started Secondary school while my younger one started P1.

Looking back on the year as my little one now heads to P2, I can’t help but reflect on how different were my daughters’ P1 experiences. Sure, the two have very different personalities, but the biggest difference? My younger child did not go through any exams, unlike my firstborn. She was among the first two batches of Primary 1 and 2 students, who would not have any weighted assessments in school. (Weighted assessments are tests whose scores count towards a student’s overall result in a subject for the semester or year.)

The irony is that when the Ministry of Education unveiled these changes to school assessments – no exams in lower primary and no mid-year exams in P3 and 5 and Sec 1 and 3 – I was one of the sceptics.

The Ministry’s idea was to provide adequate time and space for students in these “transition years” to adjust to new subjects and higher content rigour. Report books also no longer state certain academic indicators such as class and level positions. 

But I was a child of the Singapore education system, and to me, removing exams seemed like a risk. I was worried that the lack of academic indicators would make it hard for me to assess if my daughter was learning at a steady pace. How to tell if she was actually absorbing anything in class without putting her to the test?

And while the changes were intended to rein in unnecessary academic stress, what if my kid’s inability to “acclimatise” to taking exams ended up causing her more stress later on?

Two experiences of P1

However, I am now eating my words.

As I mentioned, my seven-year-old and 13-year-old have very different temperaments and learning styles. And their P1 experiences were so different.

In my elder daughter’s case, her first three years in school were fraught with learning difficulties. The term tests as well as mid- and year-end exams were a source of anxiety.

I remember sitting through parent-teacher sessions, where her lacklustre grades and inability to complete timed tests and exam papers would form the bulk of the conversation. I realise that her teachers were right to be concerned as she had not outgrown mirror-writing (her letters and numbers were flipped) at the time and could not keep pace with her classmates’ writing speed.

In contrast, her younger sibling’s learning is now assessed through bite-sized doses of school work including homework, class work and worksheets. She regularly brought home school work and worksheets done in class for me to look through (a parent’s signature was required to show that I had looked at it). This was sufficient to allay any anxieties I previously had about her not having exams and hence not knowing how she was faring.

For her Primary 1 parent-teacher session (done remotely via a phone chat in view of the Covid-19 situation), the usual talk on exams, grades or scores was notably absent.

Instead, my chat with her Form teacher, known as ‘care teachers’, was a pleasantly chill one where my daughter’s work-in-progress social and communication skills were the main focus.

The teacher also provided updates on her general learning attitude and progress observed in class, which allowed me to understand my child in a way that would not be possible if her learning had been condensed to a single grade.

Some of the things I learnt about my child was that she could listen attentively for a sustained period, had no obvious issues with her reading, writing and basic Math, but was still “developing” in terms of sharing her thoughts and feelings with her group members. That spurred me to hold more heart-to-heart conversations with her about empathy, feelings and emotions, so she would get comfortable doing this in school as well.

I was also surprised to learn that she was “competent” in asking and responding to simple questions in Mandarin and could read aloud Chinese text. I had assumed that Mother Tongue Language would be her weakness as we do not speak Mandarin at home and she had refused to speak Mandarin with family members.

The overall result of all this was that away from the stress of prepping for tests and exams, our mother-daughter chit chats have taken on a relaxed tone.

While after-school conversations with my 13-year-old when she was in Primary 1 and 2 used to revolve around when the next test was scheduled and strategies to help her complete her exam papers and homework, my younger daughter will happily share how her English teacher dressed up as Red Riding Hood, a polar bear or a cat for reading week and the fun hands-on activities they had done in class.

If the Covid-19 pandemic had not put a damper on many exciting school activities last year, I have no doubt that she would have had a lot more interesting stories to share.

The true spirit of learning

These observations over the year reminded me of something I had read by

Mr Ong Ye Kung, now Minister for Transport, who was the Education Minister then. He had encouraged Singapore parents to focus on “the true spirit of learning” instead of being over-reliant on examinations. He had called exams “a comfortable security blanket” that we needed to withdraw from.

His comment had struck a chord. Since then, I have been asking myself: What exactly is the true spirit of learning?

While exams will continue to be a part of the education journey, how can we help our children find joy, wonder and passion in learning even while they go through the necessary academic rigour?

When I posed that question to my husband, who works as an educator, his reply had been straightforward and startlingly simple: “All children are naturally curious and start out wanting to learn. I think your question should be framed as ‘how not to kill the joy of learning?’”

We know that babies and young children start out with an instinct to explore and learn about the world around them. But, along the way, the enjoyment of learning appears to drop – something which some researchers, like Kimberly Tanner and Jeffrey Schinske have attributed to an overemphasis on academic outcomes in older children. Both are biology teachers, who have done work on how students learn.

And while the changes to schools’ assessment policy are a step in the right direction, a lot will depend on whether we adults all walk the talk.

What use is scrapping exams in school if at home and on the ground, we are still cramming children with past years’ exam papers from “top” schools and sending them to expensive tuition bootcamps all year round?

Understandably, as parents, we fear that our child may be left behind if we don’t. Yet, too much focus on the chasing of grades could hurt our children in the long run and send out the wrong message about learning. We, as parents, know this, but what is the action that we can take?

On my end, I have tamped down the urge to put unnecessary academic pressure on my elder daughter, so that I don’t fall into the stereotypical kiasu parent trap.

As for my younger daughter, I cannot predict what impact the changes to the education system will mean for her in the long run. But for now, her positive Primary 1 experience has shown me that learning takes place even in the absence of exams.

One thing’s for sure, I am glad that exams are absent from my little one’s memories of her first year in “big-kid” school. I love that one of her fondest memories of Primary 1 is her enthusiastic teacher turning up in class as various storybook characters.

To her, tests are just “a bunch of questions that the teacher gives”. There is currently no pressure, no stress tied to them – for now.

Perhaps it is for this reason that she views Math word problems and multiplication as “fun things to do”, rather than a source of dread and stress. Now, isn’t that the true spirit of learning?

And as for my initial misguided worries about the no-exams policy, I’ve left that behind in 2020.