Saturday, 30 September 2017

Time to relook at assessments?

For my current course of study, I am required to complete four modules. Online quizzes were used as assessment methods in two of the modules I chose. In both modules, the quizzes were open-book. Most questions were thought-inducing rather than straightforward recall ones.

However, there was a great difference in my stress level when I sat the two quizzes. In one module, the quiz was not timed. I could take as long as I needed to answer the questions posed. I could mull over the questions and make my choices to the MCQs carefully. For the other module, we were given an hour to complete the quiz. We were told that if we did not submit the test in an hour, we would not be able to attempt the test again. From the moment I pressed the Begin button, my heart pounded crazily and even though the test was open-book, my flipping of the notes and books was haphazard as I was very conscious of time. As expected, my results were better in the untimed test.

Another difference was that I received immediate feedback for the untimed test as the correct answers were revealed as soon as I submitted my responses. For the questions I answered wrongly, I could ponder over where I went wrong. When I had further queries, I emailed the instructor to ask and it turned out that two of my 'wrong' answers were acceptable. For the other test, I received only my mark. I still do not know which questions I answered wrongly.

As an adult learner, I am able to manage stress and am not complaining about the latter test. I am writing about this because I saw how it is relevant to primary education. In one of J's math tests, he did not score well as he lost 8 marks from two word problems. In the second last question of the test, I saw how he persevered in getting the answer. He even checked his answer by working backwards and when he saw that his answer did not tally with the information given, he tried a different method. He still got it wrong. Persevering on that question turned out to be a huge mistake as it left him with little time for the last question. He had drawn the model correctly and I believe he was on the right track to the solution, but unfortunately, he ran out of time.

Despite the Singapore Mathematics Curriculum Framework listing perseverance as one of the attitudes it aims to inculcate in students, students who show this attribute during tests and exams are penalised. I am also wondering why mathematics tests and exams must be given such short completion time at the upper primary level and most of the time, students are not able to use checking strategies that they have been taught (e.g. working backwards or using of another strategy).

PSLE math questions are very interesting and I have been impressed with the creativity of the setters. I only wish that students can be given more time to complete them. I myself took quite a few minutes to solve some of the questions the first time I encountered them. An example is as follows:


I was astonished that Part (a) was assigned only one mark while Part (b) was assigned three marks. So much thinking for one mark! There were other questions requiring analytical thought in that same paper and I can imagine myself feeling overwhelmed to have to complete 60 marks worth of questions (16 questions) in 100 minutes. Paper 1 which consists of 30 questions has to completed within 50 minutes. Some of the two-mark questions can be pretty demanding. The timing and format of the papers will be tweaked slightly from next year, but I do not think the change will allow for perseverance or checking. There are perhaps guidelines for the time allocation, but the adults who are given access to the exams prior to them being administered are experienced experts in the field and the time they take to complete the paper would be considerably less than an average adult. More often than not, students are rushing through the math papers and are not given ample time for careful thought. I hope the duration of the mathematics papers at primary school can be lengthened.

In J's math test, the second last word problem was phrased in a way he had never encountered before. He had no problem understanding the solution later on and when I gave him a similar problem to solve, he was able to do it quickly. It made me think that students who attend tuition or math enrichment classes would have an edge over those who do not. An extra time of two hours per week would give them a substantially larger exposure to math problems. J does not have any math instruction outside of school. I was wondering if I was short-changing him by not employing a tutor or more actively tutoring him myself. It is no wonder it is hard to find an upper primary student who does not attend tuition or have a parent (or a relative) who can help in his schoolwork. Don't get me wrong. J's math teacher teaches him well and I can see her imparting interesting  and useful strategies to the students. I just feel there is a discord between the relatively simple questions in the workbooks and the questions that appear in tests and exams and that means external instruction is necessary unless the child is a math prodigy.

As for my other point about receiving immediate feedback on assessments, I was thinking about an example I know. The student performed consistently above average in English in school but was the only student in his class who got a B for English during PSLE. The rest scored A or A*. Unfortunately, we will never know what went wrong for him during the PSLE. I guess it is inevitable that students do not receive their scripts for such placement exams, but now that I am a student again, I think I will feel unjustified if I have been performing well regularly and I receive an unexpected grade.

I was not surprised to hear the OECD report that Singaporean students suffer from high levels of anxiety. By Primary 4, J has sat for at least 20 timed tests or exams and a number of these tests are used for streaming purposes. Perhaps our stellar performance at TIMSS and PISA is due to our students' experience at test-taking and being exam-smart. I read recently about how a homeschooler could teach her kids at suitable paces and I was sorry that a school-going child could not have such a luxury. Since we are in the system, I can only pray that God will help J in his studies.

Lastly, I pray that all students will have joy in learning. I myself was very enthusiastic in the modules I read last semester and that propelled me to find out more extensively than what I was required to. J likes reading to learn outside of curriculum but when I saw him reading a Horrible Science book just now instead of preparing for an upcoming exam next week, I was very tempted to stop him. I did not but I wish there can be fewer assessments in a year. The coming ones have a weighting of 50% and they will have a great say in which class he ends up in next year. I do not think I am kiasu, otherwise J will not be tuition-less and we will not be having so many leisure activities. Neither am I advocating for a stress-free education system. I am just asking for reasonable assessments and assessment systems.

May my wish be granted, although that will take a miracle.

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