Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat: “Nobody has suggested abolishing examinations”

Everything is alright
Everything is alright

The Straits Times today reported that Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, claimed that “nobody has suggested abolishing examinations” when he announced that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is finally undertaking a review of its high stakes examinations policy. That is very strange indeed. Readers of this blog know that I have been calling for the removal of high stakes examinations for quite some time (click this as just one example). A quick search on Google, using the search terms, “high stakes examinations in Singapore” will find at least two of my postings in the first page of the search result page. Do any variation of these terms on Google and you may even find up to three of my postings that criticize the use of high stakes examinations in Singapore. I am not highlighting this just to show how good my SEO ratings are. I am just merely pointing out that on the internet, you will find many complaints about the Singapore school high stakes examinations system and also calls for its removal. It is simply amazing that these are not seen by Singapore’s Minister of Education.

You may now wonder if the Minister of Education actually uses the Internet or even read, much less, consider views aired on the internet. This is the minister of the MOE that has been globally recognized and lauded for its massive MasterPlan for IT in Education (MPITE). This is also the same MOE that has been pushing for 21st century learning.

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat was responding to a query from a Member of Parliament (MP) about the the need for a review of the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) as it is known to be a major factor in the high stress levels in Singapore’s schooling system. The MP also said that the high stakes examinations also adds “to the coffers of the tuition industry” which I have also posted about.

In response, the Minister said that the review should not be rushed. He also said:

“Examinations well done serve an important purpose… allowing teachers and parents to gauge the extent of (students’) learning.”

I think the key phrase here is “well done”? What is meant by “well done”? If the examinations only reflect only the kind of assessment of learning that high stakes (largely written) do, is it well done? If these examinations do well in allocating students to their “proper” places in the economy, can it be said to be “well done”?

He went on to say that Singapore has a rigorous system. I agree it does but “rigorous” at doing what? Testing shallow rote-learning and mechanical operations?

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat also went on to justify the need for caution in the review by citing the failure of a curriculum reduction to reduce student stress levels in Japan. According to the Straits Times report he claimed that education standards fell significantly! I begin to wonder if he knows what he is talking about.

Is curriculum reduction the same as reviewing the need for high stakes examinations? The MOE in Singapore has been doing curriculum reduction for years. Ask any teacher in Singapore. It can be argued that despite that the stress levels has gone up over the years. Again ask any teacher in Singapore. Ask the students and parents too.

And what “education standards” was it that fell in Japan? How did they measure that? Vague pronouncements like this do not help but confuse the issue.

He also cited that the sudden changes in the Japanese education system had led to Japanese teachers and principals complaining that the text books are thicker than before. So therefore, sudden change leads to more stress. My response to this is that the changes are sudden because education ministries are historically slow to make changes. Can we really do this review slowly as we have already wasted so much time?

The MOE is no different. Despite policy proclamations to show it is being adaptive to changes, the MOE is a very conservative organization run and advised by many who themselves were the successful product of the old system. It is hard for leopards to change their spots. The Minister of Education not told of the need to review high stakes examinations by his own officials is evidence of their unchanging nature. This organizational inertia seems to be postponing necessary changes until it is very (too?) late. It may become necessary, therefore, to call for drastic sudden changes to keep abreast of developments in the world. So if there are drastic changes to be made, it is due to this organizational inertia and perhaps the cultural ethos in MOE where speaking up to criticize policy, is to put it mildly, “not encouraged”.

The Minister of Education was then reported to have asserted that “we have a high-quality, strong system”. Do we? Strong and high quality in what sense? I know we are good at management and getting students to mug and ace examinations.

But what does this all mean for our foreign observers who have been praising and even been trying to imitate our examinations system? I wrote some time ago about President Obama calling for America to emulate Singapore. America has now introduced high stakes examinations system. So who is following who now?

What does it mean also for countries in Southeast Asia like in Indonesia, Vietnam and even in mainland China and who has been rushing to get their students to sit for Singapore’s iPSLE, the international version of the PSLE? Aren’t they going to look silly?


  1. C’mon “Nobody has suggested abolishing examinations” from the minister needs to be read as “Nobody [here in the ministry] has suggested abolishing examinations”, so highlighting your suggestions is missing the point. I do however concur with your concerns. I think the idea “testing needs to serve education” got a little lost in Singapore’s hypercompetitive environment. I would suspect that the secondary education market here (tuition and friends) has perfected the “teaching to the test” method that is grieving passionate educators

  2. Thanks for the comments, Stephan. However, it must be noted that the MOE was seeking opinions from the general public. So really, perhaps his comments should be seen in that light.

    However, even if it seen as nobody in the MOE has told him to consider removing the high stakes examinations, then it is also perhaps a cause of concern. Is it because MOE’s officers are not aware of alternative modes of assessment? I would like to think this is unlikely. Or is it the officers in the MOE are just too afraid to make such a suggestion as I believe there have been pronouncements by previous ministers in the past that the high stakes examinations are here to stay? :)

    As for “teaching to the test”, it has been perfected by the teachers in the government schools for decades. A serious move towards alternative assessment mode would have serious repercussions on the morale of the teachers. They will have to unlearn and relearn everything they hold dear about assessment.

    Again, thanks for the comments. I wonder what do the other readers think of this? :)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.



Please leave these two fields as-is:

Protected by Invisible Defender. Showed 403 to 148,164 bad guys.