National Examinations: How Standardisation Benefits Us

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By Clara Chai (22A01D)

104 twenty-cent and fifty-cent coins. 1.134 kg. Sound familiar? 

While browsing through countless memes of Helen and Ivan last year, I came across this interesting news article. It touched on the stress that the PSLE brings to young children, as well as how our approach towards the national exams may be causing more harm than good. Yet, it also encouraged readers to maintain a positive attitude towards these exams.

For most students, the grades that they attain from their examinations are very important. To them, their marks impact their academic confidence and future educational pathways. For this reason, the scores they obtain for their national examinations may carry more than double the weight in their hearts. Words like ‘bell curve’ and ‘national performance’ strike fear in many students’ hearts as their grades seemingly hang on sheer unpredictability.

In recent years, however, MOE announced that the infamous bell curve had been replaced by standardisation to ensure “fairness and consistency”. Students’ grades now rely solely on their individual performance on their standardised tests. Which poses the next question: how useful are these tests in helping to ensure ‘consistency’?

Generally, a standardised test refers to ‘a test that is administered and scored in a consistent manner’. Using specific benchmarks for grading, tests are given to large groups of students to establish a reliable basis for the comparison of results. Our local national examinations, such as the PSLE, are some examples.

Standardised tests are necessary in Singapore as we use these national examinations to decide a student’s future educational pathway. Due to the ‘exceptionally strong alignment between assessment, student performance, and curriculum’ in our country, our education is tied closely with examinations.

On the contrary, in some countries such as Belgium and Germany, nearly half the student population are never assessed with such mandatory exams. Instead, classroom tests and student evaluations are conducted. In Finland, the education system consciously avoids shaping its curriculum around external tests. 

This is because school rankings are largely nonexistent there, so such tests are redundant in segmenting the student population or deciding their next educational institute. Thanks to the largely stress-free learning environment, students in these countries also report higher happiness levels than Singaporean students.

Another reason is that some education systems around the world perceive high-stakes tests are inaccurate measures of intellectual ability. One may wonder, does a low score on a test reflect a lack of knowledge or a lack of intelligence? Researchers from MIT, Brown University and Harvard University have discovered that a student’s performance on such tests does not indicate their level of ‘fluid intelligence’ – the ability to apply concepts and logic to real-world problems. To a large extent, their results support the view that standardised tests only show that a student is competent in regurgitating textbook information

Does that mean that standardised testing is detrimental?

Many parents have raised concerns about this before. In a recent commentary by CNA, it was found that Singaporean children face more fears over national exams as compared to other children around the world. These anxieties may snowball into panic attacks or other disorders. Along with many other factors, their self-confidence may be affected. Rising concerns over test anxiety have caused many movements for abolishment.

But what’s life without some stress? Unless we train ourselves to work and excel under pressure, we may be easily overwhelmed when faced with bigger struggles in life. Too much stress may be a bad thing, but eustress has never hurt anyone. It may even propel us to perform better. Instead of blaming the test itself, perhaps we should change our perspectives on such exams. Training ourselves to handle mental burdens in healthy ways, such as seeking help when needed or creating a paradigm shift from ‘having to be the best’ to simply ‘doing your best’, might just alleviate our stresses.

Advantages of Standardised Testing

Taking these exams has its uses. It is generally affirmed by many professionals as a good benchmark for comparing students’ academic standards across a broad cohort. Such tests can identify struggling students or those with severe learning gaps. They are specifically designed to check a student’s school-based knowledge, which is what psychologists refer to as ‘crystallised intelligence’. As such, one’s ‘fluid intelligence’ – problem solving skills – may not need to be taken into consideration at all.

Moreover, most educational professionals rely heavily on standardised tests to provide curriculum guidelines. Given that most teachers are preparing their students for the same examination, these tests regulate the structure of teaching and the consistency of classroom material across the country uniform regulation of our education system is one of the main reasons why our school system is so successful. This ensures that all students are equally prepared for the exam. Knowing the assessment rubrics also helps schools to streamline their curriculum and focus their resources on teaching more important exam topics.

Lastly, nearly all standardised tests are blind marked. This helps to reduce the chances of subjective grading as markers have no prior information about the candidate. According to a 2019 research article on bias grading, ‘blinded written examinations make it considerably more difficult for teachers to precisely target any conscious, or subconscious, discrimination or biases’. This ensures that all candidates are graded on a level playing field.

Should our national exams be abolished?

We shouldn’t automatically dismiss the important role standardised testing plays in our learning journey. While the issues it brings about should be acknowledged, it’s important to dig deeper and consider the things that they help us achieve. What should be changed, however, is our perception and mindset. Instead of thinking of nationals exams as an unavoidable bleak future, we can consider them in a more positive light. After all, there may be no perfect way to measure one’s academic competence, but standardised testing might just be the closest we’ve gotten to doing so.

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One thought on “National Examinations: How Standardisation Benefits Us”

  1. But of course a student who has benefitted and continues to benefit from standardised national examinations in one of the most elite schools in the nation would say this from their position of privilege.

    And sure, let’s underplay and gloss over the very real impacts of the tremendous stress our system and culture have created, impacts that our school is all too familiar with.

    Achievement seems to be made out to be more important than happiness in this article. The writer also seems to suggest that *we* are the problem and that we are simply “blaming” exams for our mental health issues. How nice!

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