Why Exams Are Here to Stay: A Deep Dive Into Examination Systems & Assessment Types

Why Exams Are Here to Stay: A Deep Dive Into Examination Systems & Assessment Types


In the workforce, you will find professionals in various fields that excel and stand out really well from the rest of the crowd. These individuals who have succeeded in their careers were also once students some years ago. A robust educational system that encourages learning and develops critical thinking is crucial to developing the young minds of students. This enables them to have the right foundations to be able to do well in university or college and eventually in their future careers. Examinations play a distinct role in helping teachers assess the learning of their students and also provide a form of differentiation of the individual student’s ability.

In Singapore, exam systems are more valued and sustained. In fact, the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) was established to develop, implement, and oversee the testing system of school institutions in the country. This ensures that students are only taking up tests that passed the standards set for each curriculum in various schools—both local and international.

International schools from various countries around the world are adopting examination systems as their primary assessment method because it serves as a universal standard for students who are coming from different backgrounds or systems. Exam systems help create a fair reference point for a student's academic performance, regardless of educational background. Schools from across the globe have since then made examinations a major tool in gauging the students' performance academically as they serve as a consistent benchmark to evaluate learning in each curriculum.

The existence and advantages of having established examination systems are well known. However, there have been increasing calls to relook the effectiveness of having tests and exams. This notion has since raised a few questions regarding the strict implementation of exams among students: Are exams necessary? Should the grades of students be based on these tests alone?

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the examination systems and assessment types here in Singapore and understand why exams are indeed here to stay for many more years to come:

What examination system is adopted in Singapore?

Today, we know Singapore as an education-centred country with a system structure consisting of mandatory years in primary, secondary, and post-secondary school. The success of the current system was achieved over several decades and Singapore often started with approaches that are fairly new—slowly evaluating and retaining the ones that worked best. 

In 1981, a fresh concept called streaming was introduced. Streaming allowed students to learn according to their own pace. This concept birthed three streams: Special, Express, and Normal in which Normal was divided into Academic and Technical courses. With this implemented, there was a notable decrease of 30 to 40% in drop-out rate which positively resulted in previous drop-out children to advance to secondary school. Each stream has limited allowable subjects so not long after, Special and Express courses were merged since the Ministry of Education (MOE) already allowed the children to take subjects that are initially only offered by the other two courses.

Years after, higher-level subjects were increased to three. This paved the way for a new concept to be developed called subject-based banding which commenced in 2014. Starting only with 12 participating schools, banding has now been introduced to all secondary schools starting at Sec 1. This new curriculum has three tiers namely G1, G2, and G3, all of which respectively correspond to the current's Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic), and Express.

Although streaming and subject-banding might seem similar, there are very distinct differences. Each curriculum has a different method of sorting out and matching students with the right paths to take. But before students can move forward to their band, they must first be assessed by exam systems.

There are various types of national exam systems in the country, namely the PSLE, O Levels, N Levels, A-Levels, IB, and IGCSE.

Each of the level brackets rule out the specific learnings of a child which serve as prerequisites for the next steps ahead. With these, students are sorted via controlled exams that would help determine which band they belong to. End-of-course exams are crucial in knowing which pathway a student should go; for primary school, there is Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), for secondary school, the Cambridge GCE N and O Levels are designed to know which post-secondary education is optimal whilst A-Levels provides the path that the student should take for higher education.

The International Primary Curriculum and Cambridge IGCSE are international curricula focused on providing learning to students who are non-native English speakers; this specific characteristic of IGCSE makes it the optimal curriculum for international students because of how flexible it can be. Schools are able to shift the coursework according to the components that they prefer to have for their applied curriculum.

With IGCSE, a wide range of students are well-targeted. We know that not every child has the same learning goals and capacities so with IGCSE, you can opt to choose the curriculum that best suits your child's needs. There is the Core curriculum and Extended curriculum that are made available for students of different capabilities. IGCSE Core curriculum covers a broader scope of courses as it is more general. For those who are looking to get grades that are in the range of C to G, this is the right course. IGCSE Extended curriculum on the other hand embraces a tighter spectrum—designed to reach students who are more inclined towards higher academics, this curriculum aims to provide an increased grade range of A-E to the achiever students bracket.

With this, students are able to easily adapt to the course and learn more about particular syllabus content that is indeed relevant to their skills and preferences. IGCSE has an extensive list of subjects, 30 of which are language-focused. Given the great number of international students enrolled in the country, this specific coursework highlights the essential learner skills that a non-native student needs to know such as intellectual inquiry, flexibility and responsiveness to change, communicating in English, and cultural awareness.

Cambridge IGCSE is a system that is very much built around students of different nationalities that's why a lot of global schools have adopted this particular curriculum as their major course offering. Due to its integrity as a reliable curriculum, international schools from across the globe are continuously adopting and enforcing it.

What do students gain from tests and exams?

Many students feel pressure every time there is an upcoming test. Apart from the challenging scope of an exam, other factors that contribute to the stress are the student's desire to get excellent grades. Although pressure can seem negative, it is actually what drives children to do better each time they get an opportunity to further their learning and education.

  • Enhanced Memory

Exams are made to challenge a person's mind. Since a test comprises various questions, one skill that will surely be enhanced is the retainment of information or memory. Question paper is meant to test a student's learnings throughout the course of a certain syllabus so this will help a lot in making the student's memory sharper.

  • Self-Confidence

Competition can be tough among students especially when the class is full of children who really value their ability to enhance the future of their career through skills development. It is inevitable for a group of children to have some form of competition in the circle since most students are achievers. Though competition can sometimes be a negative thing, it helps a lot in building up the self-esteem of a young child. A student who knows how to work hard in order to get to the top for the right reasons will be able to grasp competition as a positive thing. Self-esteem encourages a healthy competitive spirit so a student is able to turn hard work into something that could change his or her life in the future.

  • Valuable Life Lessons

Life after school is different from the environment that kids go through in their day-to-day school routine. In the real world, there are situations that will require practical knowledge of certain things. In school, valuable life lessons such as patience, hard work, diligence, creativity, and respect are taught by either the teachers, fellow students, and even by test exams.

  • Improved Academic Performance

The truth is, grades do matter. While one’s character is a major consideration of employers during the hiring process, the degree took, college graduated, and grades obtained are all important. Academic results are proof that students were able to grasp and practice the skills that they have developed over the course of their learning period.

Disadvantages of Taking Exams

Although taking examinations are necessary during classes and in education in general, there are also downsides to it that we must take into consideration. These downsides are possible reasons as to why exams have a bit of a negative reputation.

  • Lack of genuine learning

Students nowadays are more concerned about getting to the next level rather than obtaining real valuable knowledge. The essence of learning is slowly diminished by the desperate need to have remarkable grades in order to move forward. Students become more focused on getting the right answers instead of giving importance to the process. This is why in some students' exams, children study by just memorizing information without really taking it to heart.

  • Undermining their confidence

Parents play an active role in determining the stress and confidence their children have when facing exams. There are those who want their children to excel but sadly put too much pressure on their kids so they tend to compare them against their classmates or friends which then affects the student's self-confidence. Even intelligent children who always get high scores on their exams are experiencing extreme pressure and stress.

  • Limiting their capabilities

A child’s capability isn’t solely measured by test exams alone. Grades and papers are not mere identifiers of a student’s ability and talent. When there are no other performance markers, students will most likely depend on just test results which can sooner or later burn them out. Along with exams, students should also be engaging in other activities like extracurricular programs so that their skills are enhanced while having fun.

Are exams necessary?

Singapore's educational curriculum and assessment systems have evolved through the years so it is truly necessary. From a new concept to a proven one that is still making waves today, it is understandable why exams are here to stay for the coming decades. Regulatory boards like MOA strive to constantly improve the Singaporean curriculum so every student receives the best chance in learning.

Scoring systems like PSLE and Cambridge GCE and curriculum concepts like subject-banding help guide students in discovering their talents and abilities. With subject-banding projected to be fully rolled out in 2023 and eventually replacing the legacy streaming system in 2024, the importance of having a structured system should be more embraced by many. Subject-banding and exam systems allow children to be placed in courses that specifically resonate with them. With the systems being ever-evolving, negative implications and stigma are being diminished as well. Today, students are not limited and labelled anymore but are only fairly gauged according to their true capacity and skills.

Tests have been there for so long that we no longer think about why it was really put in place. At the end of the day, the goal of every school and university is to produce an outstanding student. To do this, they must enforce assessment measures to be able to ensure the quality that the education system provides to every enrolled student.

Other than the objective of getting good grades on a test and a question paper, there are far more substantial reasons behind the implementation of exams as permanent performance markers in every school. We know that exams are necessary because it yields high results from students but what we are not familiar with are the beneficial impacts of these to a child's personal growth, self and career-wise.

Both government-run schools and international schools use exams as an assessment approach but the difference is the overall experience, process, and quality that goes into every content of the curriculum. Government schools offer lower fees and more general coursework; International schools on the other hand have a syllabus that is specifically crafted to help transfer students adjust and learn more easily through topic-specific modules.

We at Invictus International School recognise the importance of conducting examinations  in that they are prepared by the Examination board that creates the curriculum. But we also recognise that the journey is more important than the destination and we offer IGCSE courses because they are designed to assess students not only on content reproduced during examinations, but because they focus on the skills rather than rote learning and allow for assessment formats that allow students to shine - such as assessed coursework and onsite practical science examinations. They recognise that not all students are made equal - nor would we want this to be so, and CIAE (Cambridge) work hard to allow all students to perform at their best.

Are examination systems really necessary? Examinations will always be necessary as long as Universities require standardised benchmarks on which to select the ‘better’ student. The emphasis has changed however to capturing all the qualities of an individual application and CIAE has designed examinations that are adapting in this direction. It is too soon to look at Finland’s educational system - consider it one of the best in the world where there are no standardised assessments, term examinations or end of year examinations - just a National Matriculation Exam which is a voluntary test for students at the end of upper Secondary school.


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