Opening Address by Mr Heng Swee Keat at the 2014 International Association for Educational Assessment (IAEA) Conference



Good morning and a warm welcome to all delegates, especially those who came from overseas. We are joined today by thought leaders in assessment and participants who are here to exchange ideas and insights in the areas of assessment and assessment innovations. We look forward to learning from your expertise and research.

Assessment Innovations for the 21st century

The theme of this year’s conference is “Assessment Innovations for the 21st century”. This theme is well suited to our present educational imperatives. Each country represented here has unique local contexts, policies and priorities. But, collectively, we share a compelling responsibility to prepare our children for the challenges in the 21st century.

The 21st century is an era characterised by volatility, complexity and ambiguity. When our students embark on their careers, they will need the ability to adapt to new jobs, acquire a wide range of skill sets and apply skills across disciplines. In an increasingly interconnected world, they also need to be proficient in the use of ICT tools to manage information, to collaborate and to communicate across disciplines and across borders.

How then can we prepare our students to be lifelong learners and to succeed in the globalised, technology intensive and fast changing 21st century? In preparing for this, many countries have established national frameworks for developing 21st century competencies. I believe there are many common elements across countries. In Singapore, our 21st Century Competency framework is made up of three components. The core of our framework focuses on values that shape our students’ character, beliefs, attitudes and actions. Intertwined with values are social and emotional competencies which help students to manage themselves, develop positive relationships and make responsible decisions. We also need to develop competencies necessary for the globalised world. These include civic literacy, global and cross-cultural awareness, critical and inventive thinking, communication, collaboration and information skills. The values and competencies in our framework are critical to the success of an individual and the society. Hence, they ought to be the foundation of the design of our educational and assessment innovations.

Singapore’s Journey in Innovating Assessment for the 21st century

This morning, allow me to share with you Singapore’s journey in innovating assessment. We consider assessment innovative when it adds value to teaching, learning and assessment. In considering how to innovate assessment, we are guided by three principles: one, assessment innovations must be fit for purpose; two, they must be in the best interests of their students and their learning; and three, they must be grounded in sound assessment principles.

A) Assessment of Learning: Innovations in National Examinaitons

Let me first share with you some innovations in assessment of learning in our national examinations. There are three landmark assessment events in a student’s life in Singapore – the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at Grade 6, General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level at Grade 10 and the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level at Grade 12. Over the years, we have regular reviews of curriculum and examinations to ensure that they stay relevant and robust.

National examinations in Singapore today go beyond the mere recall and understanding of knowledge. Our national examinations at all levels require higher order thinking skills such as application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Communication skills and information skills, which are important 21st century competencies, have also received greater emphasis in the English Language and Mother Tongue Languages. For example, at both primary and secondary levels, oral communication is given a significant weighting in the national examinations.

Coursework assessment has also been introduced in national examinations to allow testing of skills that require planning and research. For example, subjects like Art, Design and Technology, and Food and Nutrition at the secondary level provide students with opportunities to plan, research and execute their projects. Students taking the subject Knowledge and Inquiry at the pre-university level work on an independent research essay over a period of six months. In another subject Project Work, students work in groups and use a variety of skills such as knowledge application, communication, collaboration and independent learning over an extended period. We believe that these skills would give them a firm foundation for future learning and contribute towards future work-life competencies.

To broaden exposure to real-world applications and skill-sets of the 21st century industry and workplace, we have enhanced our curriculum offerings beyond traditional academic subjects. Our schools collaborate with our institutes of higher learning to design Applied Subjects, which place strong emphases on experiential learning, practice-oriented assessment and rigorous coursework. These Applied Subjects have a practical element for students to demonstrate application in real-world problems. For example, in ‘O’ Level Fundamentals of Electronics, candidates carry out an application-specific electronic project, comprising a portfolio work document, project hardware and an evaluation report.

I would like to share with you a student’s experience which illustrates 21st century learning. One of our ‘A’ Level Art students, Edwina Zhao from Nanyang Junior College, demonstrated exceptional interest in fashion design. Inspired by designers like Vera Wang, she decided to design and create a wedding dress and a maternity dress for her ‘A’ Level Art course work. Throughout the process of designing and making the dresses, she experimented with a myriad of crafts and techniques including sewing, knitting, dyeing, screen-printing, Chinese painting, paper-cutting and calligraphy. Edwina shared a flair for injecting modern style and fresh vision, while demonstrating her adeptness in handling traditional crafts. Bringing this fashion project from conceptualisation to fruition has strengthened her resolve to be a fashion designer. The point here is that well designed assessment, even if it is a national examinations, can be valuable for learning, and the key is to design it well.

B) Assessment for Learning: Assessment to Enhance Learning

Beyond national examinations, we are expanding our use of assessment to enhance learning or Assessment for Learning. The PERI Holistic Assessment initiative is our assessment innovation to support the holistic development of the child during the formative years of education. Holistic Assessment aims to engage the learner and cater to the learner’s developmental needs through age-appropriate assessments. It balances formative and summative assessment to support the learning and development of the whole child.

The introduction of Holistic Assessment in our primary schools encourages our teachers to make tighter links between curriculum, instruction and assessment and to use assessment to provide feedback to students as well as to inform teaching and learning. Holistic assessment also involves the active participation of our students in assessment. For example, they make use of rubrics to evaluate their own work and the work of their peers. Through this process, our students have developed a greater awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses and how they can improve. They also develop confidence in providing feedback to their peers. ‘Two stars and a wish’ is a technique used to actively involve students in peer assessment. Each student comments on two things that were good about the work of their peers and gives one suggestion for improvement. Xu Jiayi, a Primary 1 Student at Da Qiao Primary School, tells us about her experience using this technique:

I like to use “Two Stars and One Wish” when we do group work. My friends read my group’s story and tell me what they like and how we can improve. I can also tell other groups about how they can improve.

Holistic assessment is further supported by holistic reporting to ensure that parents are not just given one single snapshot of the child’s achievement in the form of a grade and a traditional report book. Instead, various aspects of learning are shown through the use of a range of reporting tools, such as a portfolio of the child’s work or a progress card on the child’s growth and development.

C) Leveraging ICT in Assessment

In the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Singapore did well in the computer-based assessment of Problem Solving. We were glad that our 15-year-old students excelled in thinking flexibly and creatively to solve complex and unfamiliar problems – a key to 21st century competency. The PISA findings attest to our commitment to bring out the best in every child and affirmed Singapore’s educational emphases to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But importantly, it also signalled the advent of ICT-enabled assessments in the international educational consciousness.

A third area of innovation that we have been working on is the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in assessment. Our students today are digital natives – they constantly conceptualise their thoughts and communicate ideas on digital platforms such as Smart phones, Facebook and Twitter. ICT has expanded the opportunities that we can harness for Assessment for Learning in the classroom. We have developed web-based learning portals such as the i-MTL portal for learning the Mother-Tongue Languages and ENABLER for learning the English Language. In addition, schools are also using various open source tools for online learning and teachers are using apps for real-time assessment of learning.

A significant milestone is the introduction of e-examinations in our national examinations. In 2013, the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board successfully implemented the first e-examinations for one of our Mother Tongue examinations to about 250 students in Grade 11 (‘A’ Level). The e-examination incorporated the use of ICT to enhance the context for authentic application of language skills. We have received positive feedback from teachers and students. In particular, students found composing emails and using editing features were more ‘real-life’ compared to a paper based examination. They also tended to produce a longer writing task compared to the traditional paper-and-pen mode. I will now show you a video clip of this e-examination in Mother Tongue.

Starting this year, we will also be introducing the use of video clips in oral examinations for Mother Tongue to provide more engaging and realistic contexts for conversation. Indeed, our students are exposed to similar video clips within our classrooms through the i-MTL portal that I mentioned earlier, and asked to record their oral responses. These oral responses can then be critiqued by the student himself and by fellow students. ICT allows us to use such bite-sized assessments as a way of aiding learning – Assessment as Learning – for what better way is there to learn languages than to constantly use it, to hear yourself using it, and to be corrected on the spot by yourself or by your peers?

In short, the possibilities offered by ICT are very exciting. The Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board will continue to research on the use of ICT and to explore how the use of ICT can further add value in national examinations and school-based assessment.

Building Assessment Literacy

Whatever innovations in assessment, ultimately, the critical success factor is the skills of our teachers. A good teacher can harness and multiply the effects of good assessment. Good teachers can align assessment with the desired outcomes of education and with teaching practices in order to achieve maximum impact. To support teachers in this role, we are committed to raising their assessment literacy through pre-service training and continual in-service professional development. Teachers are given opportunities to participate in workshops and seminars to learn how to use assessment strategies effectively to improve student learning. There are also various networks and learning communities within and across schools to generate professional conversations among educators. The Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board also conducts various assessment-related training workshops. The Board offers a professional qualification in educational assessment, the Specialist Diploma in Educational Assessment. The Specialist diploma equips participating teachers with the knowledge and skills to be effective facilitators and mentors of educational assessment in their schools.


While we have been updating our curriculum, teaching and assessment to ensure that they remain relevant and forward looking, we are mindful of two points: first, that we have just made initial steps in our journey towards the integration of 21st century competencies in teaching and the national examinations, and, second, that we need to continually check how well we achieve our objectives.

I would like to use our Primary School Leaving Examination at Grade 6 as an example of how we have tried to do both. The examination has been an important benchmark that was introduced more than 50 years ago. It has been instrumental in bringing us to where we are today in terms of ensuring that our 12-year-olds have a strong foundation in the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy for progression and future learning. Going forward, the Primary School Leaving Examination will continue to be an important milestone examination in the system – to provide the assessment to help each child plan the next step of his education journey that is best for him given his current pace of development, and to enable our teachers and schools to provide the appropriate educational support for each child, so as to bring out the best in every child.

What we will review is the scoring for the Primary School Leaving Examination. This is to support a more holistic education for our students, and to support the ongoing shift of our education system to move beyond a narrow focus on examination grades and academic success, to a broader emphasis on equipping students with the values, attributes, knowledge and skills for work and life in the 21st century. We are keen to learn from others how 21st century skills can be assessed and how we can better use technology to innovate assessment, be it the Assessment for Learning, Assessment of Learning or Assessment as Learning.

This conference has brought together an international fraternity of assessment and examination experts from more than 40 countries, gathered here for five days, to learn and share experiences on challenging issues. I am confident that this conference will engender interesting conversations on assessment innovations and innovations. We look forward to the sharing and learning from you.

I wish all of you a very enriching and fulfilling time at the 2014 IAEA Conference.

Thank you.