The latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results have placed Singapore among the top performers among 65 countries and economies who took part in the fifth assessment of 15-year-olds’ competencies in Reading, Mathematics and Science. We came in second in Mathematics, and third in both Reading and Science.
Not only are we in good company with our Asian neighbours like Shanghai (top in all three areas) and Hong Kong (third in Math and second in both Reading and Science), we have shown improvement in results in both academically weaker and stronger pupils. Our Education Minister is reported to be very happy and very proud of the results but I hope Singapore’s stellar performance at PISA will not undermine the need to improve areas such as equity and creativity.
A recent news report gave a more balanced assessment of Singapore’s PISA results, where OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher noted that Singapore is “a strong performer in (education) quality, but only an average performer in equity.” Educational equity is defined by OECD in terms of fairness and inclusion – providing all students, regardless of gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin, have similar opportunities to achieving educational potential; and ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all. By that definition, Singapore has progressed very well over the past few decades (from fishing village to global player) and has been considered the “poster child” for educational development (mirroring its economic success story) – see country report by OECD. We have reduced achievement gaps between genders and races, and have refined the process of teaching students according to their abilities.
Nonetheless, the education culture in Singapore is one driven by results of high-stakes examinations which are the gatekeepers to the next level of education which in turn determine the type and quality of jobs students eventually land. While this is not a culture unique to Singapore, and certainly not as extreme as compared to South Korea and China, such a culture privileges those who have easier access to educational resources (e.g. private lessons, parental coaching, financial support). Furthermore, innovation and creativity take a back seat while grades get all the glory. Despite government attempts to downplay the importance of grades and asking parents to broaden their perception of their children’s success, parents are too pragmatic to give up the paper chase. Exam results continue to be the determining factor at each turning point of a child’s school life.
The Singapore Ministry of Education hails the latest PISA results as an indication that Singapore students “are ready to thrive in the 21st century.” To me, thriving means growing in a supportive environment where students can realise their potential and nurture their talents. To thrive in the 21st century also means having the capacity to change, innovate and look for new ways of doing things. I’m not sure if we can claim that all Singapore students are ready to thrive. Some have more resources to be able to thrive, some have fewer, and many have discovered the best way to thrive is to go to another country where there’s more to school than just getting good grades.
An education system is a product of philosophy, politics and societal values. I don’t believe there is something inherently right or wrong about using exam results to measure success. Neither do I believe that there is a level playing field for all children. What I hope our education system does not do is to reduce a person’s worth to the degree of educational attainment, and by extension, the financial rewards that come from it.
However the education game is being played, we must be critical of our successes and learn from our failures. Doing that will keep my hope alive.