Tough questions: Aims of school examinations

A recent news report touched on the issue of tough school examinations that appeared to result in high student failure rates. In contrast, national examinations like the PSLE appeared to be easier.  A former primary school Level Head, Albert Koh currently teaches in a secondary school.  In this article, he gives his perspective on examinations, discussing their roles, and differentiating school examinations from national type.

Back when I was a student, during examination times, I would always imagine the teachers sitting together, cackling and trying to top each other to see who can come up with the toughest questions to torture us students. But the truth cannot be any further. Teachers do not cackle!

But seriously, setters of examination papers do sit around together to think of questions but we do not get any brownie points  when we set tough questions. We have to always keep in mind  the objectives of the examination and then come out with an examination paper that reflects them.

So what are the aims of an examination?

First and foremost, the continual assessments and semestral examinations are assessment tools. These help to provide feedback for students, teachers and parents to gauge the students’ understanding and mastery of the concepts they have been taught. For the national examinations, like the PSLE, they help to assess pupils' suitability for secondary education and place them in one of the appropriate secondary school courses, which match their learning pace, ability and inclination (See Singapore Examination Board).

With these basic tenets in mind, it therefore does not serve any purpose at all for the teachers to set an examination that is so tough that it is beyond most students. Similarly, it does not serve any purpose if the mean of the paper is in the high 80s. It is very important that we set a fair paper that will achieve the abovementioned aims. The examination paper must be set in such a way that students who have studied will be able to get a passing mark or do relatively well without too much difficulty, but at the same time, there must be a few tough questions to discriminate between the good and the cream of the crop.

Parts to an examination paper

To enable these outcomes, the paper will basically test in two parts. Firstly, the test of memory ie recall questions, where students essentially have to regurgitate what they have learnt. Secondly, the test of application and comprehension, whereby students have to apply learnt concepts to problem solving. An example would be the “Thinking’ questions found in Maths and Science subjects.

It is in this test of application where there is a disconnect between parents’ expectations and their perceived notion of their children’s abilities, and the students’ actual abilities.