Thursday, 21 July 2016

Thoughts on Changes to PSLE

The changes in PSLE grading will take place in 2021, affecting the younger of my two children. The other will take his PSLE in 2019 and his performance will be measured by a T-score, just as mine was. I will, however, not change the way I approach their learning. Both will be encouraged to put in their best effort and positive attitudes, rather than marks, will be commended.

As much as I have taken such a stance, I do feel that some concerns raised by parents are justifiable. Here are my concerns, after having read quite many responses to the changes:

1) If the PSLE is deemed necessary as it places students in streams / schools which allow them to learn at appropriate paces, the achievement bands should group students with similar abilities. 

As many have pointed out, AL6 which lumps students who score 45 and those who score 60-64 marks in the same band does not fulfil that aim. I will mention one subject as an example. Pupils who score 64 marks in a math exam demonstrate that they can solve a few analytical and application questions in addition to basic and inference questions, while pupils who score 45 marks in the same subject cannot even solve some inference questions. The pupils with 45 marks will need to be taught at a much slower pace than those with 60-64 marks. On the other hand, I would think that a student who scores 80 can be taught at the same pace as another who scores 89 and both will not be short-changed. It seems like the ALs were designed to solve the problem of over-subscription in popular schools. The needs of the middle and low achievers seem to have been neglected.

To address this issue, MOE has said that on average, about half the students have raw scores of 75 and above in the PSLE (and so the bands of AL5 and below will apply only to the other half - my own deduction based on mathematics). That surprises me on two counts. As shown in some school websites, about 44% of each cohort score A or A* in English, Math and Science in the PSLE every year. If about half the pupils have been scoring 75 marks and above every year, it means that some pupils who scored above 75 marks in the PSLE in the past were not awarded even an A. It is that competitive! Also, AL5 and below will affect 50% of each cohort. I think the range of marks in those ALs warrants a rethink.

2) In my opinion, having such achievement levels will hardly change the way teachers teach in schools. 

I fail to see how changing the grading system will bring about holistic education or joy in learning, which are some of the aims of the changes. Out of the goodness of their hearts, teachers will still push their students to achieve the best levels and teach to the test. Students who are not academically inclined will still not have joy in learning. On this point, I feel very sorry for children in Singapore. Many wake before the sun rises, rush through breakfast, then sit through at least 5.5 hours of lessons. Those in upper primary are made to attend remedial or supplementary lessons and CCAs three to four days a week. There is hardly time for reading leisurely or playing. A friend shared recently that his daughter in Primary 6 cried out of stress and this scenario probably takes place in many families. Another parent told me that his daughter did her homework till midnight and refused to sleep because she could not solve some math problems. One day, J also started sobbing as he was simply too tired to remember how to write the words in his tingxie list. I have shared at the start of the post that I am not a tiger mum. In fact, I was very pleased when I saw J devising his own way to remember how some words are written and praised him. I know in this case that it was not my mindset that needed to change. J was just tired out as are so many other children.

3) Students may not understand the implication of the changes and thus, nothing changes for them. 

The intentions for the changes to the PSLE are good. For one, it is hoped that the changes will reduce competition amongst students since the new grading system is based on attainment rather than relative standing amongst peers. However, I think not many primary school students understand how the current T-score is calculated anyway. They only learn about standard deviation and the t-distribution much later in their schooling. Many think that each subject is worth 75 marks and that 300 marks is the highest possible score. Thus, the fact that attainment scores are used now may not mean very much to a child (and I suspect to some adults too).

The term "chase that one mark" has been brought up several times to describe the current system. However, because the T-score is a statistical score, I do not think many students were "chasing that one mark". They may compare their T-scores at the end of the day because besides the grades for each subject, the T-score is the only information available to them. I notice that for school exams, students would usually report their performance by saying things like "I got Band 1 in English and Maths and Band 2 for Chinese" rather than "My overall score was 278/300". (I cannot even remember J's SA1 overall marks for that matter.) Now that only achievement bands will be reported in the PSLE, won't students be striving to be in the better bands? In the new system, it is more possible to "chase that one mark" to get to the next band since the marks are more tangible.

MOE should not simply tell parents and other stakeholders to change their mindsets, but address problems that have been raised. I think tests and exams are good in informing students, teachers and parents of how much a child has learnt and can achieve, but an exam that will influence a student's next path should only be administered when the child is able to understand its implications, perhaps at the age of 16 or 18.

4) Exam formats may have to change. 

This is not so much of a concern as it is an implication. It is not easy to get 90+ marks for English (and maybe Chinese) as there are components such as composition where 32/40 is considered decent. I think hardly anyone gets above 90 marks for a language exam in schools in Primary 5 and 6. Either the exam format has to change or moderation of marks occurs, otherwise 4-pointers will be rare (which again is not a concern to me).

5) Parents / students may be at a loss when choosing secondary schools. 

For a start, I suggest that some statistics be made known in the year the changes take place. It will be helpful to know the mean and median score or the percentage of students scoring each band. This may help in the selection of schools.

Schools may provide details on their niche areas but I know that there are some schools I would never send my children to (because I have met one too many students from those schools who use expletives like punctuation marks or seen other unruly behaviour) even if they have a fantastic leadership development or robotics programme unless I have no choice. I believe that all schools are already equipped with good infrastructure and even competent teachers. But the school's environment is made up of more than these and 近珠者赤,近墨者黑 has always been regarded as a wise saying. For the record, I think MP Denise Phua's idea of a through train programme from primary to secondary levels appeals to me.


MOE is reviewing DSA, affiliation and exemption from Mother Tongue. Meanwhile, here are my thoughts:

I think DSA should only apply to specialised schools or schools with unique programmes. I have seen how two students who got into SOTA through the DSA blossomed in their fields because the teachers were experts in those fields and were able to enhance their potentials. Similarly, I would expect students in the Sports School to be given coaching by experts and have their talents developed further. Thus, if the specialised schools were to give prior admissions to students who are outstanding in their areas of expertise, I feel it is perfectly justifiable.

However, several IP schools have DSA through academic achievements and this goes against the spirit of holistic education that DSA hopes to bring about. I also saw some schools which attract students to their performing arts teams and to qualify, a student must attain a minimum grade in ABRSM or ballet exams. My friend's talented daughter X had a Grade 8 in violin and got into a well sought after school through DSA. X had to join the school's orchestra for the four years of her secondary school life as part of the DSA agreement. Meanwhile, her family continued to send her for external competitions and performances. I feel that whichever school she was posted to, she would have continued to take part in external competitions and performances. Thus, DSA did not really promote holistic education in this case. The holistic education would have occurred anyway. X benefitted from the DSA in that the pressure of PSLE was taken off her, but why should she be given that advantage? The school also benefitted as the orchestra had that one talented student, but is that really the aim of DSA - to benefit the school?

On the other hand, I recently asked another friend with a Primary Six child if he was going to apply for DSA. This was my friend's remark, "Through what? He has no talent." I felt sorry for the child. Those who already receive holistic development outside of school (music lessons, sports training, chess lessons, Learning Lab enrichment lessons, ballet lessons etc) qualify for DSA when their talents are already being honed. Instead, those who need support from schools for holistic development because they have "no talent" do not.

My personal view is that CCAs and school programmes are sufficient in providing holistic education. After all, in my time when there was no DSA, I had the opportunity to join a uniformed group and later on the choir and I also learnt values like discipline and perseverance. DSA mostly benefits the schools and the main benefit of the students is that they are guaranteed a place in a school and relinquished of the pressures of the PSLE. DSA should only apply to specialised schools, where experts are employed to help outstanding students develop further in their respective fields.

My view on this is that most parents want what is best for their children. If their children are from affiliated schools, they will want the affiliation to stay and vice versa. I hope MOE would come up with a fair solution. Students who study in primary schools with affiliation are not there by merit so they should not be given a much greater advantage than their peers from non-affiliated primary schools.

Mother Tongue Exemption 
I know of a student who performed decently well in English, math and science but who scored only about 20+ marks for Chinese in school exams. In Primary 6, he was asked to take Foundation Chinese. His parents brought him to psychologists to assess if he had dyslexia. The first two assessments were negative. Finally, he managed to get certification that he was dyslexic in August of his Primary 6 year and was exempted from Chinese. His PSLE T-score turned out to be 24-something. I would never know what his T-score would have been had he continued to sit for Foundation Chinese in the PSLE, but it would definitely not be as impressive as his final score. That also causes me to think if the way scores are calculated for students exempted from Mother Tongue Languages are fair. Some people have suggested that everyone could choose his best three subjects so that those not exempted would not be at a disadvantage. And how would the grades for foundation subjects affect the aggregate score? Seriously, I do not think there can be a fair solution.


I think that MOE is doing its best to alleviate the focus on academic achievement and to promote holistic development. In fact, they are doing so much that they have taken on values education and talent development, which I think should be the jobs of parents. (Schools can provide more opportunities and training but they need not shoulder the responsibility totally.) However, mindset changes will not be possible unless there is a systemic change and changing the grading system is not a systemic change to me.

I also hope that criteria such as leadership and arts or performance will not be given grades as some people have suggested. I would like my children's interests to be developed such that they will be enjoyed and will definitely not want to rush them to take exams or tests to give them an advantage in school posting.

How meaningful is this? Decades down the road, the recipient of this result slip can hardly hold a conversation entirely in Mandarin and has to resort to using English words to express herself. 

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