No more grades and exams? What’s next?

Singapore Teachers’ Union examines teachers’ perspectives, as well as their hopes and challenges, on the new policy affecting school-based assessment from January 2019.

Starting this year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has adjusted school-based assessment structures at the Primary and Secondary levels and also revised the Holistic Development Profile (HDP), commonly known as the ‘Report Book’. Some of the amendments are:

  • For P1 and P2 students, all weighted assessments and examinations will be removed. In place of weighted assessments, qualitative descriptors will be used to report students’ learning.
  • For P3, P5, S1 and S3 students, the Mid-Year Examination (MYE) will be phased out over the next three years (2019 to 2021), starting with the removal of MYE in 2019.

For a full list of adjustments and changes, please click here.

Since the announcement made by MOE in September 2018, members of the Singapore Teachers’ Union (STU) contributed valuable perspectives and have generally welcomed the change.

For a start, MOE has estimated that “the removal of MYE will free up to about three weeks of curriculum time ”. Our members are expecting not to spend as much time setting exam papers and marking them. However, this does not necessarily translate into a reduction of workload. Rather, several members shared that the time will instead be spent honing their instructional and pedagogical skills through planning and conducting more interesting lessons, for instance, to include experiential learning or inquiry-based learning. Our members understand that opening up curriculum space to innovate with engaging pedagogies will eventually benefit students by enhancing their joy of learning.


“I do believe, that students’ joy of learning is much more important in the whole perspective of lifelong learning than learning exam strategies.” – comment from a teacher



Without exams, how will students be assessed?

Without exams, the tracking of learning will shift from milestone examinations and tests to more informal ways of assessment. It will also open up possibilities in the ways which learning can be assessed, thereby creating opportunities for teachers to innovate and further hone their skills in Teaching and Learning. Some of our members shared that teachers have the opportunity to customise their teaching and apply formative assessment more rigorously to better monitor students’ performance.

The new policy will place an increasing pressure on teachers to be more skilful in deploying formative assessments to gauge students’ learning and using data to fill learning gaps. However, our members have highlighted that not all their fellow teachers are comfortable with using formative assessment to gauge their students’ learning and would like more support to be given to teachers on this area.

Besides having the competency to conduct formative assessment following the removal of some examinations, members have commented that teachers are now expected to monitor every student more closely by collecting more information and evidence of students’ performance to provide a rigorous and valid assessment.


“Teachers may need more time to really know their students very well in order for them to give qualitative descriptors to the students’ learning. Teachers may (also) need to set aside more time to discuss with the other subject teachers of the level so that the students will not receive a vastly different progress report about their learning.” — comment from a teacher

Grades vs Qualitative Descriptors

Another challenge foreseen is for parents to effectively understand a student’s performance and progress via qualitative descriptors, in-lieu of a performance grade or numeral score. One member shared that each school currently draws up its own qualitative assessment descriptors and that there is no standard set of descriptors used across schools. As such, schools may have different descriptors for the same outcomes, which may lead to different interpretations of the descriptors by parents and students. Teachers may thus have to spend more time discussing and explaining a student’s performance to a parent.

Some members have suggested that standardised subject-specific qualitative assessment descriptors across schools may help create a common interpretation amongst parents and students. This will also cut down on duplicated work done by teachers across schools.


“Not every parent may be able to understand what the qualitative descriptors mean. Parents need to be educated on the qualitative descriptions and how to interpret them” — comment from a teacher

“Parents are so used to seeing grades and marks. The absence of both and replaced with (qualitative descriptors) will be challenging for teachers at first but once we have gone through the initial phase, it should be alright.” — comment from a teacher



Further, preparing accurate, precise and valuable qualitative feedback would require time and effort on the part of teachers. School leaders must ensure the provision of adequate structured time for teachers to do this. Writing may not be a forte for all. It requires professional development and guidance as well as time and space to be mastered.


A welcomed initiative

Our members have generally welcomed the policy intended to reduce the overemphasis on examinations and grades. The freeing up of curriculum time and space allowing teachers to innovate is perceived as an opportunity. At the same time, without examinations, school leaders and parents are likely to have a higher expectation of teachers when it comes to applying formative assessments to monitor students’ performance. Complementing this move should be strong support to develop teachers’ capacity in various assessment strategies. Teachers must also be given time to adjust to using more and varied forms of formative assessments.

While there will naturally be challenges during the implementation, STU and our members are hopeful that the education leaders, teachers, and parents can work hand-in-hand to achieve greater outcomes for students and enhance their joy of learning. After all, the joy of learning comes naturally from the joy of teaching.