Wednesday, June 3, 2009

When perfection is not enough

In the 2008 GCE 'A' levels examinations, some 918 (or 3 in 4) students from Raffles Institution (JC) scored at least 3 Distinctions in content subjects and 421 (or 1 in 3) students received a perfect University Admission score of 90 points. Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) was a credible second, with 7 in 10 students scoring at least 3 Distinctions, almost 200 students attaining 7 Distinctions or more, and 69 perfect scorers.

ACS (Independent) (ACSI), which offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) instead of the 'A' levels, performed just as admirably. In 2008, which saw just its second graduating cohort of IB students, had 252 (or 62%) of its students achieve 40 points or more and 9 students with a perfect score of 45. Internationally, a score above 38 would qualify you for entry into Ivy league universities, making ACSI one of the top IB schools in the world.

I don't know about you but these numbers blow my mind. 30 years ago, students who received straight As for 3 subjects at the 'A' levels would make headline news. 20 years ago, this bar was raised to students who received straight As for 4 subjects and 2 Special (S) papers. Today, students are taking up to 13 subjects at 'A' levels, with options of Advanced papers and God knows what else. And they are STILL getting their straight As.

What has happened here? What is most apparent to me is that Singaporean students have been getting the better of examinations for years, no matter how many challenges are added along the way. When such a large number of students are able to achieve perfect scores, it indicates that these examinations can no longer adequately measure the performance of the top echelon of students. Faced with the impossible task of differentiating between the incredibly super and the merely terrific (LOL), what do the authorites do? They REDEFINE perfection.

This trend scares me silly. The local education landscape is gruelling, to say the least. As one teacher noted, Singapore's education programme is an accelerated one. On top of that, we offer accelerated paths for those who are thriving in the accelerated programme. By the JC level, the kids who have managed to make it to the academic elite schools like RI (JC), HCI and ACSI have likely been accelerated a few times. And they are further accelerated within these schools! By the time they graduate, they're like speeding bullets.

My concern comes in because I wonder if there are any undesirable side effects from this. It seems these kids can do everything. Ace their academics, ace their CCAs, win competitions, are natural leaders and do 101 external activities. I wonder, how's their social life? Do they sleep? How often do they see their parents? Are they warm, generous people? But I'm afraid to ask because the answer just might be that they manage all these areas competently as well.

The thing is, we probably won't know because these are not areas that are easily tested or assessed. We have become a nation obsessed with numbers. Eg. if we hear that a child has scored 18/20 for composition, we automatically believe that the child is able to write well. But maybe that child just happened to memorise a good essay that was tested? If someone tells us, "my daughter can play the piano", we immediately ask, "what grade?" (if the parent hasn't already volunteered that information). It's like that number validates the ability.

Going back to the more than 500 kids from RI (JC), HCI and ACSI who achieved perfect scores. Are they all equally brilliant and in exactly the same way? Probably not. But how can you tell? Are we really a nation of geniuses? If so, shouldn't we be ruling the world by now? I don't want to diminish the achievements of RI (JC), HCI and ACSI - I believe Singapore has very bright kids who work very hard and I applaud them. In fact, I wonder if those 500 odd kids feel a little bitter because even after achieving perfect scores, they find that they still have to compete with so many for scholarships and places in the Ivy league universities! And what about all those with less than perfect scores? Next to these perfect scorers, three Distinctions sounds almost common-place.

RI (JC) and HCI have already recognised the perfect score quandary and are awarding their own diplomas in addition to the 'A' level certificates, to a percentage of the top students, taking into account other achievements and qualities. Perfection being redefined yet again. I was joking to Kenneth the other day, "Pretty soon, to be considered an A student at the university, you'll need to find a cure for cancer."

I'm just musing out loud, I don't have the answers. My gut feel is that the examination system needs to change but with Singapore being an extremely exam-smart nation, I don't think that's a long-term solution either. I also don't think the situation is unique to Singapore, but perhaps to Asian countries.

Recently, I told a friend who was contemplating having a second child, the biggest incentive for having kids early is that the later you have them, the harder the exams will be! Pretty soon, the target to meet will be 5 A* for 4 subjects at PSLE. Impossible? Not for Singapore, I bet!

12 comments:

Lilian said...

5A* for 4 subjects LOL! Yeah yeah, add one A* for kids who get 100% for all 4 subjects lah. Ooops, what if this gives MOE food for thought!

The thing in Singapore is that the acceleration isn't just in studies these days, but also in CCAs; during our time we could join any activity we were interested in, these days need to go for selection test to join Math Club, audition for guitar club, someone told me a school even required selection interview to join Girl Guides!

A friend's son is really good in a sport and she said if he goes to one particular school, training is 6 days a week, 3 hours a day. This starts at Sec 1! This is like professional training right?

If only they awarded bonus character points for kids who display graciousness, are kind to others in action and in speech, are respectful of teachers and parents, show great teamwork (eg. able to trust team members to do their part, not a free rider, don't rely on parents to help with profssional-looking project work), value friendship and don't trample on others to get on top. Oh, and impose penalty points on kids who have unreasonable, kiasu (not normal kiasu but ugly kiasu) and entitled-mentality parents. Sorry for deducting points from you kiddo, the fruit usually doesn't fall far from the tree. But if you're really different from your annoying parents, am sure you can make up for it with the bonus character points.

monlim said...

Haha, I like your system!! And deduct extra hypocrisy points for those who PRETEND to be kind and respectful just to get points. But won't happen lah, cos MOE and ST Forum will be swamped by complaint letters from ugly kiasu parents...

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right about the bitterness the top students felt in RI(RJ). Last year or yr before it came out in the news after "A" levels were released. Many interviewed lamented that they could not get into Ivy league U of first choice. Many get their second or third choices. And the reason was these kids had no "community work" or "services" in their track record. So many of these complaining were muggers who had no time to do anything else. They were certainly sad and bitter in their remarks. My hubby and I were quite shocked with the mindset. It was really food for thought if we, as parents, should want to push our children into such academic excellence and ended up not being able to think in broader terms.

On the other hand, if those who had community service track record based on their own efforts, all well and good but if they used their family's connections to obtain the testimonials, then the whole system is indeed flawed to produce the non-existent super kids! LOL...

These days, it is very common for me to come across parents who inform me voluntarily that their children CAN jump levels in primary school. Most of them are not successful in reality, either tried not successful or do not want to try, afraid of misfit at higher levels. I must attribute this trend to many right-brain training/total brain training programmes for kids these days, the SUPER being are all works-in-progress now. Whether these programmes are really useful, based on probability, it certainly hit upon some kids who are really born with the potential. So the sample size of such SUPER beings are being increased year on year due to parents' affluence to be able to spend on such programmes. So your prediction of 5A* holds! LOLLLL


qx

Alcovelet said...

This whole idea of a nation of high scorers just scares me out of my wits. I remember reading that article about the RI students who scored identically well. Doesn't it seem fantastic, as in out of this world? Whatever happened to the normal distribution curve, and what sort of concerted effort must be happening underfoot within each family to shift the curve so dramatically?

I can't agree more with you, Mon. The trend of examination results tells us we're becoming so successful in focusing on and measuring output that we fail to consider the input and the process of education. Surely, what makes a person is more than the vital statistics, but in, among many things, being a morally upright person who is able to take on the challenges and responsibilities of the modern world.

I'll never forget what my husband's 1st boss (a scholar) once said:"How can they say I'm not a good manager? I scored an "A" in Human Resource Management, you know!"

monlim said...

My bro-in-law who was from a SAP school, says there are 2 types of top-scoring students: the super brilliant types who can ace everything without much studying and the muggers. The first group can multi-task, do lots of things and do them all well. The second group is the one that focus single-mindedly on studies at the expense of everything else. I wonder if the Ivy League schools consider a 3 distinction but with community service student over a perfect scorer with nothing else. If so, I think they're doing the right thing.

Ad, your hubby's ex boss comment is classic!

Alcovelet said...

BTW, I was reading some forums. Apparently, Ivy League colleges are getting inundated by lots of "community service", "build orphanage in Thailand" type of resumes. In fact, these resumes are the easiest to fix. A friend of ours used to be president of a martial arts federation here. He says you won't believe the number of kids who apply to set up the club in their tertiary institution and, when they get the title of President, will suddenly not have the time of day to manage the club.

It's a cynical world we live in.

monlim said...

Ad: I think it all boils down to personal integrity which unfortunately the school system cannot test so its value is diminished. I'd like to believe that it would be different once they hit the workplace but who knows? We all know people who maneouver their way to the top via dubious means as well. Sigh...

Sue said...

I have mums telling me about the Raffles Academy and how good that would be for their child (who's currently in P6) and here I am thinking "Isn't the Raffles Programme tough enough?" :P

monlim said...

Sue: Maybe it's just intellectual snobbery, the same way that some people are never rich enough :D

A figment of your imagination. said...

Oh yeah. I'm a 16-year-old student from an express stream school, not the accelerated ones, yet somehow I can fully relate with this post. Seems to me that the school faculties and the Ministry won't stop until they're listed as the top in the world. This just gets uglier over the years.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from one of the elite schools you mentioned above and I would like to say a few things: first, that it is incredibly difficult to obtain the nearly perfect profile that students from these schools portray to the public. It is not easy, juggling schoolwork, CCA, community service and whatnot at the same time, but we do it and I like to think that we become stronger through the process. I do not believe that getting top grades in school now guarantee social adaptability in the working world, but I don't think the value of the education we have received should be diminished. Through my experience I have definitely come out of my school being warmer, more generous, more genuinely concerned about the welfare of people of the world, more efficient, etc etc.
That said, I appreciate the viewpoints you raised and agree totally that competition is getting tougher. But that is not a local trend but an international one. Top universities in the world are swamped with 'perfect' applicants not just from Singapore but from other countries as well. It may be sad to say this but it is imperative to keep up.
As a side note, it is impossible to attain 18/20 for an essay in our school through memorising a model essay simply because there are no possible model essays for the humanities subjects. When our classmates get such high grades, we congratulate them whole-heartedly instead of wondering bitterly if they have 'cheated' by 'mugging too hard' or 'memorising perfect answers'.

monlim said...

Anon: Clarification - when I mentioned 18/20 for composition, I was referring to primary school. Certainly, I know it's almost impossible to get perfect scores in the elite schools at JC level. In fact, I would say that these schools go all out to make sure the students do quite dismally, especially in the first year, which to me, is equally ridiculous. It's as if they want to tell the kids, "see, you're not that smart!" so that the students will be pleasantly surprised with their better than expected A level or IB results.

I think many students accept the crazy difficult standard at JC level because they internalised the message that they've have been told repeatedly, that it's the only way to be competitive globally.

Either way, I do feel it's terribly unhealthy and it's a mindset that's driven by fear of not keeping up. I'm truly glad you're one of those who feel that you've emerged a warmer and better person, but I also know lots of people who have become hardened, competitive and self-absorbed because of it.

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