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New Exams for Old!


New Exams for Old!

by Kenneth Lyen

A report commissioned by the British Government has just published its results on 18 October 2004. It advocates the abolition of the 60-year-old General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE, the former O’ level), A’level exams, and various vocational qualifications, and replacing them with a new single diploma.

The Singapore educational system is based on the British. Like them we have O’level exams for 16-year-olds, and A’levels for the 18-year-olds. To ensure that standards are maintained, the exams are jointly administered with the Cambridge Examination Board. We even followed the British when they introduced an N’level, an exam intermediate between the O’ and A’level exams, but when the exam was scrapped in England, we clung onto it in Singapore.

There are a few major problems associated with these old exams. Firstly, the exams are not very vigorous in testing the application of knowledge. Science subjects, history, geography, and languages, tend to test the ability to recall facts rather than how to apply data in problem solving.

Secondly, the exams are not sufficiently sensitive in differentiating the better students from the rest of the cohort. For example, the number of students scoring all A’s at O’ and A’level have increased to such an extent that tertiary institutions and employers do not place much merit in the results.

Thirdly, the syllabuses for most subjects tend to be relatively uninspiring and stodgy, with little room for vocational training. Of course a good teacher can overcome this limitation.

Fourthly, there is an annual synchronized panic when an entire cohort of students takes the exams whether they are ready for them or not.

And finally, O’ and A’levels are currency only for Britain and some Commonwealth countries, for university entrance and job applications. The exams are not recognized in Europe, and only partially recognized in the United States. However, the former advantage of plugging our educational system into the British O' and A'level system is being eroded as fewer countries recognize it nowadays.

An attempt to solve the problem of A’levels was made in 1968 when a nonprofit educational organization set up a new exam named the International Baccalaureate. As its name suggests, the exam is recognized internationally. The aims of this exam are to "develop challenging programs of international education and rigorous assessment, and to encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners."

This exam has been adopted by many schools in England, and a few schools in Singapore. It has the advantage over the A’levels in that a broader range of subjects is offered, and that science students must offer an arts subject, and vice versa. But it seems like the British Government's commissioners may be bypassing the International Baccalaureate.

The new British diploma plans to redress all the above deficiencies of the O’ and A’level exams. There will be greater flexibility in choice of subjects, which will be modular in their design. Students can decide whether or not to choose more general or more specialized subjects, and they can opt for vocational training if they prefer.

They study at their own pace and take any of the four levels of assessment when they feel ready.

There is a core element which all students must pass, and this includes basic day-to-day skills in maths, information and communication technology, and interpersonal and communications skills.

There will be project work, which can be an extended piece of cross-curricular work, a scientific investigation, the writing of a piece of drama, music, or a long essay. A viva voce exam will grill the students to ascertain that the work done is really their own.

At the end of the day, students will graduate with a diploma. This documents the modules they have sat for, the marks obtained, as well as any project work, employment experience, family responsibilities, voluntary community service, and other extracurricular activities. Details will be available to universities and employers so that they have a better picture of the applicant.

The problems with such a major system overhaul are that the transition period will be a time of great uncertainty and disruption, and that the long-term results will not be known quite a long time. The chairman of the British report, Mike Tomlinson, said that the measures would not be introduced so quickly, and may take up to a decade before it is finally installed.

Singapore is already making many radical changes to the educational system. It wants a system to encourage independent, critical, and creative thinking. These changes should have been made decades ago. Add a revolutionary new exam to the mix, and you have the recipe for an almighty pedagogical crisis. It may be a while before we regain our bearings.

We can take this opportunity to distance ourselves from the British exam system, perhaps to follow, say, the American system, or to set up our own. It is a decision with far-reaching implications. We do not wish to be shut out from the global tertiary education network, or overseas job markets. Nor do we wish to have our entire educational system dictated to by a system that may not be quite appropriate for our situation.

Let us hope that we back the right horse!