High stakes exams and tuition in Singapore, Asia: Still stressful?

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Education systems in East Asian societies like in Singapore are known for their high stakes examinations, and the whole industry of shadow education – better known as “tuition” or “cram schools” – that accompanies it. Their schooling outcomes are, after all, being validated by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, which frequently put these school systems right at the top of the tables.

The recent developments in Singapore might therefore surprise external observers.

In the year 2021, a new scoring system would be introduced for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Wider scoring bands such as A, B, C and D would be used to grade subjects that 12-year-old students sit for, rather than aggregate scores where students graded relative to one another, as is currently the case.

This is perhaps nothing too radical. It is, after all, similar to the scoring system used in the O-level examinations, taken after four years of secondary education, and the A-level examinations, taken after two years of pre-tertiary education.

What is driving these changes to the Singapore education system?

Employers emphasise skills, not curriculum knowledge

For sure, the issue of excessive stress among students and parents alike is a big factor that is pushing the Ministry of Education to rethink aspects of the PSLE.

Also, having attained global recognition for its school system, countries like Singapore might now feel more than sufficiently confident to try out changes to the examination systems as a next step for progress.

Another are the issues of youth unemployment – perhaps not grave in Singapore, but are a global trend that affects much of Asia, despite its status as a growth economic area. This has sparked a rethink of education, not only at the higher education level, but throughout the whole spectrum of the education system – to emphasise the acquisition of skills – particularly “soft skills” like communication skills – over mere curriculum learning. These are what employers are increasingly saying they look for among job candidates, such that those candidates would be ahead in the global competition for jobs. And soft skills are intrinsically not developed through high stakes examinations.

Nevertheless, the latest changes in the Singapore school examination system are admittedly incremental. Part of the reason lies in the accompanying mammoth industry as alluded to earlier.

Shadow education, or tuition, is an industry in Singapore worth over S$1 billion annually. That is essentially what households in Singapore spend on tuition classes outside of formal school education every year. The growth of this industry is also stunning – it represents almost a doubling of the $650 million that was spent by households back in the year 2004.

This translates in several thousands of dollars that parents spend on tuition for their children each month.

The crux of the matter has been succinctly summed up by Jason Tan, associate professor at the National Institute of Education, Singapore: “Many parents still think the choice of school does matter. So for those vying for the top schools, it’s still about fighting for scarce places.”

South Korea, China and Asia at large: uncovering the problems of shadow education

The situation for high stakes examinations and shadow education is hardly unique in Singapore of course.

In South Korea, almost 90% of elementary students receive some sort of shadow education. Students ultimately prepare for the Suneung, the college entrance examination. Household expenditures on shadow education in South Korea are among the most extreme in the world, equivalent to about 80% of what the government itself spends on public education for primary and secondary students.

Expenditures on shadow education in other countries are headed in the same trajectory.

The figures are similar in other places like Hong Kong, where about 85% of senior secondary students receive tuition, or in mainland China, where students ultimately prepare for the gaokao, the university entrance examination.

There are problems that have been uncovered by studies on shadow education done in those countries, which policy makers should sit up to. One such major study is that by Mark Bray and others, at the University of Hong Kong, in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Proponents of privatisation in any industry usually speak of what they can achieve in efficiency, in the provision of services, over that of the public sector.

After all, tutors in the shadow education industry operate in a marketplace setting, where they exercise the careful use of their resources to serve clients who equally demand value for money – in this case, better school grades for their children.

The first issue is that one cannot assume that private tuition would always result in direct improvements in learning outcomes. Such is that the nature of education, which sets it rather apart from other industries. That would depend on factors like the motivation, attitudes, and learning styles of students, as well as the motivation, attitudes, and teaching styles of the tutors at those tuition centres.

The second issue is that shadow education has a strong tendency to focus on narrow

domains of learning outcomes. Indeed, some tutors and tuition centers do stress study skills and a more well-rounded development of their student clients, but many focus on examination skills alone.

One teacher in Taipei City explained the serious problems stemming from the latter mode of tutoring:

Cram schools place emphasis on “short-cut” and “effectiveness,” and focus

solely on producing the correct answers to problems rather than exploring

the systematic structure of mathematical concepts. Children frequently fail

to solve problems that look novel to them. They just learn to mechanically

apply a formula when solving problems through drill and practice. Such

rote practice may enhance their homework performance or term tests

that cover only content retention, but may weaken their meaningful

construction of mathematical knowledge.

The phenomenon of shadow education is certainly not limited to East Asia. The same University of Hong Kong-ADB study cited above also looked at West Bengal, India, where nearly 60% of primary school students receive tuition outside of formal schooling. In Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, it was found that a similar proportion of students receive external tition at the senior secondary level.

The numbers are lower in other countries, usually correlating to wealth, but the phenomenon of shadow education is certainly spreading and intensifying throughout Asia.