The Straits Times says

When exam checkers fail students

Exams cannot be overly kind, for credibility's sake. But it would be quite unkind to have the young sit a wrong exam due to administrative carelessness. Unfortunately, that's what happened to 73 students from two schools when an incorrect O-level mathematics exam paper was given to them, following a mix-up in the subject codes during registration. This resulted in them coming across a few unfamiliar topics during the examination. The two schools were at fault, said the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB), because they had indicated the wrong syllabus code during the registration process.

It is useful to inquire exactly how the error occurred - since it arose in more than one school - and how it was discovered. The danger of confusion should have been flagged earlier as there were separate papers for the revised syllabus with the code 4048 (being examined for the first time this year) and for the old syllabus with the code 4016. While the topics examined in both papers are largely comparable, according to the SEAB, one should not gloss over the blunder as the students were taking their O levels. Given the usual angst associated with school-leaving exams, the mistake would have rattled them needlessly. How the error was spotted is also material as they had to sit a maths Paper 2 the next day and could not afford to be tripped up again. Did those in charge realise their mistake as soon as one would expect, or were they alerted to it by the students themselves, as reported? Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School and Woodgrove Secondary School owe it to the school fraternity to be open in their post-mortem of this unhappy incident.

The remedial action included notifying the SEAB so the students took the correct maths Paper 2. They were also counselled and told they would not have to re-sit maths Paper 1. However, this means the assessment for that paper will have to take into account the circumstances of the case, their performance in the school preliminary examination, their performance in the other maths paper, and their cohort's performance. It is the best one can make of a bad situation, but it will not do the students full justice as students typically prepare harder for their O-level exams than they do for their prelims. Furthermore, the special criteria differ from what is being applied to all other students for the particular paper.

Thankfully, such episodes are rare here. That being so, schools should not let their guard down. They must ensure internal processes are robust enough to prevent such foul-ups. While one should not get carried away by the importance of exams, they should be run rigorously. Administrative lapses by even a single school detract from the educational spirit of a system that bases meritocracy on fair and equitable processes implemented consistently across the board.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2016, with the headline 'When exam checkers fail students'. Print Edition | Subscribe