I know I have dedicated many blog posts to address this issue. I feel very strongly about it. Many things have been done to transmit the message to children that grades do not define them. My son tells me that there was a talk in his school for that purpose. Students' class and level positions are no longer printed on report books. Yet, at the grand age of twelve, the child sits an exam where his achievement for that exam is made public. The secondary school that the child goes to and his stream will give a gauge of how well the child has done during the PSLE. This will not change with the new grading scheme. I have mentioned that I sincerely believe all schools have good infrastructure and capable scholars have been posted to less well-known schools to teach. However, there are about 55 (out of around 159) secondary schools where the cut-off point is 200 or less. I believe these are the schools with more N(A) and N(T) classes. When you put students who are academically less inclined together, do you think they can motivate one another to reach greater heights? Teenage is when a human being is very much influenced by peers and students spend many hours in school at the secondary level. Eventually, the PSLE score may not matter, but for four to five years, the child's life is partially shaped by his peers and his school. My younger brother, whom I think showed a lot of creativity and brilliance when he was a child - for sure more than me, surprised all of us by doing badly at the PSLE. He dropped out of school at secondary 2 and though there could have been many factors for that, one observation I made was that his friends were more interested in gaming than in studying.
Although there are programmes like the Applied Learning Programme that help students make sense of their learning in schools, much of the primary six year is dedicated to solving one word problem after another or mastering answering techniques for science. My nephew who is taking the PSLE in a few days' time has completed all the 2017 and 2018 preliminary exam papers he can get his hands on, and is persuading his mother to print the 2016 papers as well! If he has been getting more than 90 marks consistently in school exams, it probably means he already has a good grasp of what he needs to know. The time spent completing past-year papers could be more productively spent on acquiring new knowledge!
I also feel that the PSLE is stifling. Instead of solving real-world problems, students mule over how many pies were baked if the baker sold half of the pies in the morning and one quarter of the remaining pies in the afternoon. Wouldn't the baker have known how many pies he baked? Earlier this year, I met a group of students whom I had taught when they were in primary six. Some of them are in the polytechnic now and they were passionately showing me buildings they had designed or animations they had created. One of them remarked that he was finally studying something that mattered. Well, we do learn things that provide the foundation for future learning at primary and secondary school, but overdoing word problems and memorising elaborate words and phrases for composition writing may not be the best use of time. Also, I have met many dedicated teachers but how many of them are truly nurturing avid readers among their students? How many science teachers are helping students identify common bird calls or insects found in the school garden rather than mainly teaching answering techniques? Are we encouraging learners to be curious about the environment?
|What bird is this? What does its call sound like?|
On a related note, because of time constraints in the maths exam, most students do not have time to effect recommended problem solving techniques, which include checking of their answers. You immediately need to identify a strategy, use it and move on.
From the brave people who have posted their PSLE scores via the Life Beyond Grades movement, we saw a PhD candidate who scored 190 at the PSLE. At 12, that score meant she was around the 40th percentile of her cohort. When she earns her PhD in the near future, she will probably be among the most qualified of her cohort. We often hear of people with poor PSLE scores doing well later in life. My own magic number was 256 and I am not even earning the median income of Singaporeans. Why do we think that the PSLE has been sorting people effectively then?
I am doing research on critical thinking and I know that keeping an open mind is important. Thus, I tried to list the benefits of PSLE instead of immediately rejecting it. The PSLE aims to group students of similar ability together, and I hope the reason is to teach students at appropriate paces. However, apart from the top 20% or so, the other secondary schools will have students with a mix of abilities. Some may be excellent writers but be struggling with maths or vice versa. It seems like the top schools have the easier job since they only need to cater to those who did well in every subject.
Perhaps the PSLE also compels students to take their learning seriously. However, do we want students to study only when there are exams, or do we want students who learn because they enjoy it? Many students also forget the models they have drawn and most other crammed knowledge shortly after the exam.
The distinct purpose of the PSLE is to place students. It does give students a sense of how well they perform in that one exam. However, students will never know how they can improve as they do not get to see their papers. It is a very objective way of sorting people, but is the sorting necessary?
On the flipside, the PSLE causes learning to be stifled for at least one year, sorts students such that mainly those who perform well benefit, places students who are not academically inclined together such that they are unlikely to have peers to motivate them, publicly announces one's performance to the whole world and forces several parents to send their children to tuition or enrichment as these parents are unable to teach their children themselves (Some parents become their children's tutors). I have yet to meet a child (of the current generation) who performs well in every subject with no tuition or familial help. Does that imply that instruction in school is insufficient in order for a child to excel in the PSLE?
I have read of people who say that Singaporeans are whiners and we should just accept the PSLE and encourage our children to work hard for it. If accepting the status quo is the way to go, I am afraid we would not be enjoying the comfortable lives that many of us lead. We may still be using oil lamps instead of electric lights or manually-operated fans instead of air-conditioners.
Also, my qualm is not against assessments in general. Timely assessments are necessary as it gives students a sense of how much they have understood and which areas they can improve on. My concern is that the PSLE heavily influences who a student's peers may be during his most impressionable years and may prematurely give information to a child about his academic ability or lack thereof.
I have some suggestions:
- Make the curriculum for those who do not qualify for the express stream more attractive. There could be more options for students, like entrepreneurial skills or business management and so on. Perhaps these students need not stay in the secondary school system for five years.
- Change the names of the streams to academic, technological, technical etc. How can the existing normal stream be normal if two thirds of students qualify for the express stream?
- All schools should have students from different streams, rather than have elite IP schools.
-There could be advanced placement for certain subjects.
- Some NMPs have suggested including project work and other continual assessment in the PSLE score, rather than depend on the child's performance on one exam. I think this is possible, although the tasks should not be done at home for integrity's sake.
- Include solving of real-world problems in the assessment that elicit 21st century competencies - in particular critical and inventive thinking, while making use of sound principles that they have learnt.
-Increase the duration of tests so that students have time to think and employ problem-solving skills.
Hopefully, pedagogy will be less exam-oriented and students can be free to acquire knowledge not for exam purposes but for life. I also hope there can be more collaboration where students who are more academically inclined can help those are less academically inclined. This can help create a more caring society.
Here are some other posts on education in Singapore: Link to education posts