Government needs to change its mindset about education

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By S. Bala

indranee rajah (500x331)
Senior Minister of State for Education, Indranee Rajah

In a recent comment, Senior Minister of State for Education, Indranee Rajah said that the parents need to change their mindset about tuition and education, and not to pile students with unnecessary tuition. Perhaps, it is the government that needs to change its mindset:

Education assessment is not just about ranking students but is a process that melds 3 important elements: how students learn, the tasks or situations that allow testing the knowledge acquired by the students and interpretation of data of the students’ performance. Unfortunately, we had been compromising learning, leading to ambiguous knowledge testing and extremely limited interpretations of what students know. Here is the rub: One size does not fit all. When we try to design an all-purpose assessment for different learners, we will not be able to sufficiently meet any purpose.

An effective assessment should allow valid and fair inferences about student achievement. A single formal assessment is not valid nor does it allow making fair inferences of students’ achievement. The Primary School Leaving Examination is one such summative assessment. A conventional pen and paper test, such as PSLE, limits the potential of an effective assessment which otherwise could have been a gauge to assess a broad repertoire of cognitive skills and knowledge of various kinds of learners.

Knowledge acquired by students is contextualized and influenced by the environment in which it is acquired. It takes a high level of cognitive processing to apply this knowledge to different contexts. In essence, it does not mean that when a concept of percentage is taught, every student is capable to apply and transfer the knowledge especially to solve problem sums which requires manipulation of numbers procedurally. There also seems to be an apparent disregard of the student’s language ability to comprehend the word problems which may retard the arithmetic skills .The task becomes even more arduous as the student is not just expected to apply the knowledge in a new context but do this within the constraints of time.

The assessment on student learning should not be determined by a single, conventional pen and paper test but a series of assessments that incorporates different modes such as the use of computers. Electronic test can also be customized to the individual student’s learning style, context or purpose.

Test scoring and reporting of results is often conveyed as a testimony to the student’s subject competency especially in a high-stake examination. Robust statistical tools ensure a fair and valid reporting of the results. Currently, T-scores are used to report the student’s performance relative to his peers. It does make sense to use standardized scores as students taking various combinations of standard and foundation subjects can be assessed as a cohort. There is no fault here.

The problem lies in the first two legs of assessment: understanding how students learn and testing that learning through diverse modes of assessment. We do use sophiscated statistical techniques but it has no bearing if the cognitive tasks of the students are restricted. The pertinent question is : Is the Singapore education system fair in assessing the students’ competence?

Policy makers need to recognize the limitations of the current system. They need to accept that there is a misalignment of high stakes accountability examinations and the instructional practices in school which are geared towards critical and creative thinking. This will require a departure from the current beliefs that important decisions cannot be made on a single score, definitely not for a placement examination. We need to understand that assessment is not a “snapshot but a movie”. We want to know how a student progresses over time, not where they stand in a given time.