Sitting for exams is like exercising. When we exercise, our muscles become stronger, likewise in an exam, “jogging” our memory for answers strengthens our memory cells. FILE PIC

FOR many years, standardised examination scores were central in the assessment of school students in Malaysia. The misuse and overuse of high-stakes testing, however, can damage an education system when there’s too much emphasis on data from the exam scores at the expense of learning.

Most schools had focused on exam-preparation programmes to get more students to score straight As. Extra focus was also given to those who showed potential in scoring for exams.

Students who performed well during exams were grouped together in a class and taught by more experienced teachers while the rest were usually left behind, sometimes coping on their own.

In return, parents realised that in order to receive more attention and focus in school, their children must score during exams to be placed in the classes.

As a result, the harm had probably been more severe in disadvantaged rural schools and among students who were slower in learning academically.

However, more recently, we have seen a reduction in the importance of exam results with more emphasis given to develop students holistically.

During the announcement of the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) for 2018, the Education Ministry stressed on the need to focus not only on the results but also the overall Primary School Assessment Report that included Classroom Assessment; Physical, Sports and Extracurricular Activities Assessment; and, Psychometric Assessments.

Just last month, Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced the decision to abolish examinations for pupils in Years One, Two and Three to restore the spirit and principles of the School-Based Assessment System (PBS) which was introduced in 2011.

This trend of abolishing stressful examinations is not just happening here in this country. In an effort to move away from overemphasis on academic results, schools in Singapore will reduce the number of examinations across different levels starting next year.

Announced in September, the changes are to encourage teachers to explore different ways of teaching instead of spending time in the classrooms to prepare them for exams.

All graded assessments and examinations for Primary 1 and 2 pupils are removed to give them two exam-free years. Instead, teachers will use qualitative descriptors to report on their pupils’ learning.

Mid-year exams are also scrapped for Primary 3 and 5 as well as those in Secondary 1 and 3. Even marks for report books will be rounded off without decimal points to reduce the excessive focus on marks.

Despite Singapore’s recent decision to shift the focus away from exam perfection, it is important to note that its education system is known to be the best in the world — a result said to come from rigorous teaching methods and excellent teachers.

The country is consistently ranked at the top of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) programme for the International Student Assessment (PISA) putting their 15-year-olds roughly three years ahead of their peers in mathematics, globally. A different PISA ranking in 2015 designed to look at collaborative problem-solving also placed Singaporean students first in the list, proving the education system has worked for their students.

The same cannot be said for Malaysia after seven years of implementing PBS to create independent students with critical and analytical abilities to think in a higher order. After too many changes in our education system, there should be consideration that reforms now should be tested first, with outcomes diligently monitored, before they are rolled out.

Critics against the examination-based system say that the assessments should be producing students who are able to understand properly the subject matter of their studies, rather than merely memorising them for examinations.

Removing or scrapping exams may not be the answer to a better education system, we should instead make sure what mix of assessment tasks is most appropriate for our students. In order to do that, teachers must be guided on the weightings for the different types of assessments like class tests, projects and presentations.

These assessments too need to work for both students and teachers. The methods should make a real difference to learning and at the same time cut teachers’ workload in the process rather than adding to it.

Project-based tasks, which is seen as an option to replace exams, that draw on students’ creativity and interest might be able to develop several important higher-order thinking skills, such as decision-making and analysis, but they cannot be the only alternative to exams.

Examinations may be stressful, they are not all that bad. They can also improve learning.

Studying and sitting for exams deepen the learning process. It is said that it is comparable to exercising. When one exercises, the muscles in use grow stronger. When sitting for an exam, the process of searching through one’s memory to retrieve the relevant information strengthens the memory pathway.

Rather than passively reading and remembering by rote, we want our students to study by forming appropriate questions, searching memory for relevant responses, and knitting this information together into appropriate answers.

School assessment is a process of gathering and analysing evidence about student learning, and used to enhance teaching and learning. It can also help educational decision-making. Information from these assessments can also students' academic competencies and readiness for the next level of education.

When implemented properly, the information can support students to achieve intended learning outcomes through feedback on learning gaps and ensure that they are not left behind in studies. That way we get better results for our children, not only the number of As one achieves.

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The writer, who left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom, is NSTP’s education editor for English content