Over the past weeks, there have been consistent calls for the abolition of the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE): for instance, Associate Professor Pauline Straughan asserted passionately that the Ministry of Education (MOE) should “[g]et rid of [the] PSLE”, so that schools will be freed “from [the] obsession of testing”, and “teachers can focus on teaching”. Unfortunately, what I feel that critics fail to comprehend is that the acquisition of skills or knowledge (as well as the development of creativity) and the incorporation of examinations are not mutually exclusive. They make the misguided assumption that the presence of the PSLE means that students are engineered to prepare for examinations per se; which is, of course, not the case.
The MOE Dilemma
More strikingly, the representatives did not convincingly postulate other recommendations or alternatives: could we spread the test components out so that there will be less riding on that final paper (students might be even more stressed out on a regular basis, and individuals will always find ways to game the system)? If we do remove the PSLE, how can measurement and corresponding school allocation be conducted? Should we adopt the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP), even though its pedagogies remain under scrutiny, and that assessment components are still incorporated?
The biggest challenge is that the MOE finds it utterly impossible to please every single stakeholder: while the aforementioned opponents are staunchly against the status quo, there might be parents and students who contend that present standards are not high enough.
Individuals would find it impossible to disregard the advantages of standardised testing (there really are, at the moment, no two ways about it). Pragmatically, institutions and organisations around the world rely heavily upon standardised assessments for acceptance, entrance or qualifications. At the same time, pressure environments also push pupils to think and perform, while revision exercises can facilitate the retention of information, and mastery of response techniques. Examinations test understanding, as well as the application of skills.
Hold Up, Hold Up… There Is Room For Improvement
The elements of competition and differentiation are important in this process. The PSLE allows students to be placed in the most suitable school (I am naturally against school rankings, because they do not encompass a diverse range of characteristics), be it in terms of the sports, performing arts, scholastic ability et cetera. The MOE – in the past – was frequently lambasted for perpetuating the perception that intelligence is premised solely upon academic performance; nevertheless, with the introduction of direct admission schemes and specialised normal technical schools, the administration is moving in the right decision.
Still, we can contemplate amendments to enhance Singapore’s PSLE practice.
1. Stress can be a positive thing, but only if it is managed effectively by parents and educators working as collaborative partners to empower schoolchildren accordingly (here). I have always contended that stress has been extensively pervasive throughout our education system (here), but it should be managed more delicately when it comes to primary school students, who might not be accustomed to these pressures from the get-go.
2. The value of examinations can be heightened if diagnostic aids are provided to students. As it stands, test-takers are simply given their grades and final scores, without a breakdown or analysis of their performance in the respective subject components. Diagnostics are especially helpful for the languages, and could – in the future – be applied across the board to school-based assignments or tests (individuals must look beyond the scores).
3. We can diversify the way we assess the students before the PSLE (in fact, the MOE has been doing this by doing away with year-end examinations for some primary one and two kids, if I am not mistaken). There can be the inclusion of projects, individual writing assignments and presentations et cetera; essentially, programmes that also involve the healthy transfer of skills. This could complement present examination mechanisms, and render teaching-learning processes more holistic.
I am not against rote memorisation and regurgitation (certain linguistic skills and nuances can only be drilled through repeated practices, and these mechanical abilities do come in very handy in the future), but I object to obsessive, pedantic reliance upon them. PSLE is not the problem, it is our inability to find a balance that should be addressed as we move along.