Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Assessment Books: When Less is Always More

Some time ago, I wrote about my views on assessment books. It is one of the most widely viewed and shared pages judging from the page views of nearly 40,000.

Lately, I came to know of two siblings who are struggling academically.

The irony is these kids are not those who play truant or not working hard enough. The mum made each child complete 8 to 10 assessment books per year for each subject!! So they do work extremely hard, though most of the hours they put in are probably involuntary.

So why and how did they still fare so poorly in exams?

After I ploughed through the actual school exam papers and pile of assessment books they are doing, I made a few key discoveries which I shared with the parents.

1. There was way TOO MUCH doing and way TOO LITTLE teaching and explaining.

2. The foundation in some subjects/topics is weak and little has been done to address this before new topics are taught. E.g. After the mid-year exam, the Primary 3 kid is still struggling to grasp the new content taught in Term 1. Her Chinese is so weak that she can barely recognise beyond the first 2 chapters of the 3A textbook.

3. The assessment books they have been doing are not suitable for their needs. Most of the Chinese books are too difficult for their current abilities to be useful to them. The Science books cover too much irrelevant content (the 'good to know' concepts are categorised as 'should know'), which is great for a child of above average ability but frustrating for the below average learners who are unable to discern between the necessary and the extras. The Math books are either too challenging or too simple, so it is still a waste of their time.

4. Too much time spent on their strongest subject, with the hope of making them stronger (aiming for 20 points improvement), yet little time is spent on the weakest (50-60 marks range) because they consider it a lost cause. Huh??

But above all, the major problem is this - the kids spent on average 25 - 30 hours each week doing assessment books and yet the actual teaching/explaining is barely 2 hours a week.

So what happens to all those work that they have done? They are marked by mum, but all piled up waiting for dad to explain when he has free time. Mum refuses to explain/teach but will assign work, mark and buy more assessment books when the kids have finished the stockpile at home. This means the kids learn very little or none at all from their mistakes. More often than not, they aren't even aware of their mistakes since they don't get the feedback till weeks/months later after the dad is free to explain. URGHHHHHH!!!!!

I suggested they consider tuition for the weakest subject, do fewer assessment books (in fact I recommended just one per subj) and to teach 2 hours a day or 15 hours a week. And only do a second assessment book when there is extra time. Focus on the weak(er) subjects given the adults' lack of time and/or willingness to teach. Get help from school teachers and voluntarily place them in school's remedial classes.

The parents refuse to pay for tuition, preferring to spend the funds on annual vacations and hotel buffets. The mum rejected my recommendation on assessment books, as she has already spent hundreds of dollars on them, so they cannot be wasted. Voluntarily sending them to remedial classes will be too embarrassing, so that is not an option too.

It breaks my heart to think of what these kids are going through. At least if they fare better, then all their hard work pays off. But in this case, they are disheartened, constantly exhausted and still at risk of failing. The self-esteem takes a beating and one of the kids has even threatened suicide once! Normally, I cannot stand the idea that some kids are struggling in school. A big part of me want to 'rescue' them all. But of course, how much can I really do? There is limited time and being a responsible adult means I must always fulfill my own responsibilities first. So over the years, I have accepted that if I can help one child at a time, it is better than nothing.

As I see these kids infrequently and they live far away from me, there is even lesser that I can do to help. That said, I offered them free tuition for a couple of hours weekly if the parents can figure a way out to send them to me once a week after school. Again, that was declined because it will be a hassle and too expensive to pay school buses for that one way trip. Sigh...

Unfortunately, the kids have reached a level where they will need intervention in order to bridge the wide gaps or they will probably fail some subjects at PSLE. How did the school teachers miss that? Perhaps there are too many struggling kids in school? In the end, it all boils down to what parents can and will do to help their children.

Life is unfair. While some are born with a silver spoon, others are struggling to fill their tummies. On one hand, I see so many kids scoring over 90 marks and still going for 1-to-1 tuition to maintain their standards, and on the other spectrum, there are kids who desperately need help but receive none.

It will all be fine if the kids aren't cut out academically and the parents can accept the reality, adjust their unrealistic expectations and stop pressurizing the kids. If parents are too ignorant, proud and stubborn to find useful solutions to help their offspring, eventually, it is still the poor children who have to suffer the consequences. There is a limit to how much outsiders can intervene, despite our good intentions.

I am sharing this with the hope that parents who are reading my blog will learn a thing or two from others' experiences. As parents, we must realise that our decisions can have such tremendous effect on the quality of our children's lives.

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