Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Parents up in arms over tough exams

Parents up in arms over tough exams - Overly-difficult mid-year exams see too many students failing and drain their self-esteem, they say

Secondary 4 student Lim Zhong Yi is spending the June school holidays mugging instead of playing his favouritecomputer game, World Of Warcraft, even though his O-level exams are a distant five months away.

He failed five of the eight subjects in his mid-year exams last month, despite having studied for them.

'I feel very demoralised when I look at my grades now. But I've promised myself that I will study hard,' said the 16-year old from an all-boys' school in the east.

He can take some comfort in the fact that others did not fare well too - 40 per cent of his school cohort failed Social Studies and 30 per cent English.

Such significant failure rates have become common in schools here when mid-year or preliminary exams rollaround, especially for those with a big national exam - PSLE, O or A levels - at the year-end.

While students generally go on to do much better at the national exams, the phenomenon has become dire enough forat least two concerned parents to write to The Straits Times Forum recently about what they said are schools'deliberate attempts at making internal exams tougher than national ones.

This is so that schools can stay on top of a competitive ranking game, the theory goes.

One parent said her Primary 6 daughter was 'distracted and subdued' after her recent exams - half her class failed maths.

'Please spare me the usual 'it was challenging but we expect the girls to manage it well' or 'this is to make the girls buckup for PSLE'. These garden-variety remarks reflect a school's way of shifting blame onto pupils and to pressure parentsto get tutorial help,' Ms Jessica Chong argued in her letter.

She is right on at least one count. Tuition centres said they typically see a spike in enrolment after the mid-year andprelim exams.

SmartLab's chief executive Tony Tan, 38, sees about a 10 per cent jump in enrolment after mid-terms every year. Hislargest groups of students come from Primary 6, Secondary 4 and JC 2.

The Learning Lab said the increase is 'discernible' although it doesn't have figures. 'Parents and students knock on thedoor, pale-faced and shell-shocked,' said its manager, Ms Charlene Ong, who is in her 20s.

Educators said schools set tough exams so students can be kept on their toes for the all-important national exams.Some also do it because they want to keep up their reputation for high academic standards.

'There are bragging rights for which school sets the most difficult exam,' said Ms Ong.

Teachers said that with increasing competition among schools, the pressure is on to improve the performance of a graduating cohort every year.

'Papers must be a bit challenging so that they can shake one out of complacency and make one study harder,' said MrLak Pati Singh, 56, principal of St Patrick's School.

A vice-principal at another boys' school, which has been accused by its students of setting tough exams, agrees.

'Students don't take internal exams seriously. They're very complacent and laidback,' she said.

Such tactics used to be employed by elite schools to spur their students on but teachers in neighbourhood schools said they have started getting in on the act too.

And in a bid to prepare students at other levels, tough exams are also being set for those below Primary 6, Secondary 4 and JC 2.

What's more, it is no longer enough for a student to study just what is in the textbook. A primary school teacher saidthat national exams have moved towards questions that hinge on critical thinking.

'The exam format has changed but the syllabus and pedagogy haven't kept up; that's why students keep failing,' she said.

The Education Ministry said the purpose of assessments is to help teachers monitor progress so exams should be pitchedat the right level, taking into account what has been taught.

And while schools are given free rein to set papers, designing a fair paper means having a mix of easy, medium anddifficult problems, which the ministry said schools generally adopt.

It added that it would continue to work with schools 'to help them pitch their assessments correctly'.

But worried parents said tough exams do nothing for self-esteem.

Mrs Lisa Ng-Tay, 50, a full-time mother of four children, had to counsel her son and look out for signs of depression whenhe fared poorly at his JC2 prelim exams at Raffles Junior College last year.

'Exam standards should not be set so high that the bright but not exceptional ones feel dumb,' she said.

Tuition centres, too, said they had to rebuild crushed egos. Said SmartLab's Mr Tan: 'It's good to shake their confidence abit but not to the extent where it collapses. The objective of assessment should be that they can come out of it stronger.

'Students and parents, it seems, aren't the only ones affected.

Said a veteran primary school teacher: 'We try so hard to teach the students but only a handful pass their exams. We'reall suffering from low morale now.

'A paper's level of difficulty is determined by department heads and principals, she added.

But not all schools believe in making their exams tougher. CHIJ St Theresa's Convent principal Pauline Wong, in herlate 40s, said an exam is fruitful only if students can attempt it, and benefit from the experience.

Ultimately, educators point out that a good exam paper should balance stretching the students and offeringmanageable questions.

Psychiatrist Adrian Wang believes putting students through difficult exams is not the only way to motivate them.

Other methods include positive feedback from teachers, engaging parents early in their child's learning andconstant monitoring of grades.

'A demoralising exam paper can affect a child's self-esteem and cause the typical kiasu Singaporean parent to overreact.In this case, the consequences are more negative than positive,' he said.

Sunday Times, The (Singapore) - Sunday, June 1, 2008
Author: Tan Dawn Wei and Samantha Eng

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