PSLE changes: Broader bands and psychological games

Jul 13, 2016 04.30PM |

by Daniel Yap

THE specifics of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring revamp and changes to the Secondary 1 posting have been announced. As expected, there will be 29 wider bands for the new PSLE Score instead of the 200 current granular T-scores. They will reflect a student’s own academic achievement instead of being a means to rank him amongst his peers. What’s new? Secondary 1 Posting will now have a much larger element of choice order.

The new scoring system will have each of the four PSLE subjects given a score of AL1 to AL8, based on ranges of marks. The sum of the four scores will form a PSLE Score, which will determine the student’s options for secondary education.

New scoring ranges for PSLE
The new PSLE scoring system.


An example of how the new PSLE scoring system will work to give students their final PSLE score.


The placement outcomes of students depending on their PSLE scores in the new system.

Exam standards and school curriculum will not be changed as a result of these changes.

As before, academic performance is the first hurdle that a student seeking a place in Secondary 1 will face. Indicative cut-off ranges for schools will be published as usual. Once it comes down to the last places in a school, and candidates all have the same PSLE Score, placement enters a tie-breaker round.


The first tie-breaker is nationality. Singaporeans get in first. Next is a new criteria of choice order. Today, two students with the same T-score who have a school on their list will go into a ballot, regardless of where the school stood on their list – in other words, the list is just a list, not an indication of priority or preference.

In the new system, however, a candidate who places a secondary school higher up on his or her list will be given priority over a candidate who placed the school as a lower priority. Finally, if there are still more candidates than places, it will come down to a computer ballot.

There are two exceptions to this system: SAP schools and affiliated schools. A student’s performance in Higher Chinese Language will be considered before any tie-breakers when applying to a SAP school. Those who do better for Higher Chinese will get into SAP schools first. The affiliation system will remain unchanged. The ministry did not address the issue of meritocracy in the affiliation system.

Sounds like game theory to you? Psychology at work? It is. A lot more hangs on school choice. Place too many popular schools too high up on a candidate’s list and there’s a higher risk of not getting what you wanted at all. Play it safe and stick an unpopular school somewhere higher up on the list and you’ll stand a good chance of getting in, but will you wonder if you could have gotten into a school you actually preferred?

Sounds like game theory to you? Psychology at work? It is.

Without knowing how other parents and students are choosing, it really is a question of risk appetite and economics.

How will it affect students’ and parents’ choices? Is there any way to predict how behaviour will change based on the new system? The Ministry of Education (MOE) has conducted some focus groups and does not expect school choice to vary from current patterns in spite of the changes to the system, although it is hoped that it will change over time.

As for how MOE will help parents decide, especially the pioneer batch making the Secondary 1 choice in 2021, the ministry wants to showcase more of the individual traits of each secondary school, their co-curricular activities (CCAs), unique programmes, convenience and so on.

“It will take all of us, parents, educators, maybe even society in general, to move this school system forward so that we reduce the competitiveness of it and encourage the creativity and collaboration of succeeding together,” said Education Minister Ng Chee Meng after the announcement.

MOE said that it doesn’t want revolutionary change. But should it? Will these changes really impact the education culture that we complain so much about, that we find damaging? Is the PSLE less high-stakes than it was before? MOE seems content to wait and see how it goes, starting in 2021.


Featured image is a screenshot from the MOE video ‘Changes to the PSLE scoring and S1 posting’.

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