In light of Singapore’s decision to reduce the number of examinations that students need to sit, we talk to experts on the effectiveness of formal assessment

It’s no secret that economically developed Asian countries are pretty keen on school exams. From Hong Kong and Singapore to South Korea and Japan, the pressure on students to succeed academically is buttressed by a strict regime of formal exams, the results of which play a large part in determining their futures.

Singapore, however, recently announced that it is getting rid of all exams for primary 1 and 2 students and mid-term exams for primary 3 and 5 students, and in the third year of secondary school.

Announcing the changes, the education minister, Ong Ye Kung, identified four trade-offs in any educational system: between hard work and student enjoyment; between useful academic differentiation and an overcompetitive culture; between customisation to cater for a range of abilities and stigmatisation of the less academically able; and between skills and paper qualifications.

The problem is a culture where the grade is valued more highly than learning.
David Carless

In common with plenty of educationalists around the world, the Singaporean government appears to believe that putting too much emphasis on exam results can be counterproductive. The most visible problem is the amount of pressure piled onto students, but there’s also the bigger question of whether exams are an effective way of learning or of assessing students in the first place.

They only test a limited range of skills—a particular problem with the job market rapidly changing in the era of disruption, automation and AI—and, as professor David Carless of the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong puts it, “The danger is that students will memorise some stuff because they have an exam and then a week later forget it all.”

Exams still have plenty of positives, though. They’re a quantifiable way of tracking progress that can help to identify strengths and areas for potential improvement; they can drive learning by concentrating minds, making students focus on all subjects rather than just their favourites; and they’re objective and hard to cheat.

“I think exams can identify what students’ strengths and weaknesses are, consolidate learning and push people to study, plus obviously in Hong Kong they’re culturally highly valued,” says Carless. “But I think we have too much testing in the early years. The problem is a culture where the grade is valued more highly than learning, especially at a younger level. At primary school—and I think this is what the Singaporeans are trying to do—it’s better to focus on something a bit more enjoyable. Once a student starts hating a subject, it’s hard to come back from that; it can be quite discouraging and demoralising.”

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Exams alone can be too narrow in their focus, he adds. “Exams favour the written over the spoken, and they focus on what can be tested, which often means they’re multiple choice rather than developing broader communicative skills. What is more meaningful is actually harder to test.”

So an answer would be that better designed exams, with questions that require long-form answers, are more useful than multiple-choice tests. They tend to work better among older students, however, and teachers are often too busy to produce them.

Hau Kit-tai, Choh-Ming Li professor of Educational Psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says there’s a danger reform can go too far.

“There’s a strong need for some reform in Singapore. People are desperate and they’re looking for visible change. Around Asia, study pressure is a problem. But whether it’s a good solution or not is debatable. Feedback on learning is always very important in teaching and learning; if you are being corrected, it’s very useful. If you’re not giving a ranking, you’re not promoting movement to the next level.

“The problem is whether by not giving a grade you’ll hamper teaching effectiveness. What we don’t want is high-stakes feedback like the primary 6 exam selection and screening process—these are things that cause pressure. Low-stakes feedback is useful, and we need to avoid being too restrained in giving it. We should still continue with daily feedback on student learning but reduce the pressures of assessment.”

If there are too many formal exams, the issue becomes what replaces or sits alongside them as a method of assessing student progress. Examinations and tests are known in educational circles as summative assessment, and often contrasted with formative assessment, a qualitative, non-score-based, ongoing regime that takes a wide variety of forms.

Professor Kerry Kennedy, adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong, favours more of the latter. “I don’t think exams do anything well,” he says. 

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“Exams in Hong Kong and Singapore serve a social function rather than an educational one. They sift and sort who goes to university—a way to differentiate between students that allows decisions to be made. Hong Kong is a testing culture, to decide who gets into the best schools. The other function of assessment is more formative in nature—to help kids learn. The more of it there is, the better for the kids.

It will take multiple forms: teacher feedback in classrooms, a quick test at the end of a unit of work, essays as the kids get older. Assessment is feedback, and there are multiple ways teachers can provide feedback. That’s why exams don’t count: there’s no feedback for students. Assessment is still part of learning; the question is how to do it better.”

The other function of assessment is more formative in nature—to help kids learn. The more of it there is, the better for the kids.
Kerry Kennedy

There can be resistance to these kinds of changes in societies like Hong Kong that value exams. The city still favours a vigorous summative assessment regime, and there’s little sign of movement; Chief Executive Carrie Lam said recently that an emphasis on learning experiences over exam results would disadvantage children from less privileged backgrounds.

“I don’t think it’s going to change much in Hong Kong,” says Carless. “When I came to Hong Kong in the late ’80s, the same issues were being discussed—people were talking about overassessment and pressure. The government doesn’t want to upset various stakeholders, so it takes a very laissez-faire attitude.”

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