Changes to PSLE scoring: But what about the curriculum?

Jul 18, 2016 10.30AM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

IF THE aim of the new PSLE changes – replacing the T-score with wider scoring bands and introducing choice order as a tie-breaker – is to reduce the stress of excessive competition and the over-emphasis on results, then the changes should be somewhat successful.

Because within new “achievement levels” – unlike the old T-score or transformed score, which ranked student’s performance relative to other PSLE-takers – students will not be differentiated that finely or comparatively, and how they rank their secondary school choices will allow the more academically-inclined students to be distributed across a wider range of schools. This is aligned to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s vision that “every school is a good school”, and at the 2013 National Day Rally it was also the first time the G announced its plan to use wider bands for grades.

But what if education stress in Singapore results from different causes? The stress which stems from getting up to speed with curriculum content in the first place? Or the stress which stems from our continued reliance on examinations as an assessment format? And in the bigger picture, are the new PSLE changes even consistent with the broader national movement away from academics and grades, to a focus on aptitude and skills?

“… the focus of our education system should go beyond test scores. Currently, despite our efforts to move towards a holistic education, there is still a narrow emphasis on academics and paper qualifications.”

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng seems to think so. At the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament in April this year, he first spoke of the need for better balance in Singapore’s education system, a system which he said places “narrow emphasis on academics and paper qualifications”.

“Some broad level of differentiation [at the PSLE] is still needed,” Mr Ng added, “to guide students to academic programmes that best suit their interests and strengths. But the scoring will be blunted to a large extent.”

And a month later in May, during an interview with current affairs programme Talking Point, the education minister repeated talking points about how wider scoring bands will “temper unhealthy competition” which has arisen from the T-score system of ranking students relative to their peers. Again, the focus is on the stress created by competition, and not necessarily the stress created by content or curriculum.

Yet, when Mr Ng was asked if “the school curriculum was a key source of stress that drove some to seek tuition for their children”, his response was far from convincing. “I don’t have a really good answer for you in that because it’s such a multiplex issue,” he said, before listing piecemeal changes by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in recent years, such as not naming top PSLE students and the de-emphasis of rankings between schools. “Multiplex” was the word he used to describe how many players, such parents, students, educators, and employers, must contribute to mind-set shifts.

Effecting such change may be beyond the control of the MOE, though surely some progress can be made with its curriculum and examination design, beyond the new PSLE changes? To first determine whether existing content is reasonable – if it creates pressure for those who fall behind, for instance – and then to determine whether examinations are the best way to assess skills and knowledge.

There may well be anxious parents who send their young ones to tuition, chasing that one or two extra marks – a phenomenon which should ease when the new changes come into effect in 2021 – but there are also those with children struggling to simply catch up, and for whom tuition is the only way to keep up with homework or assignments. In this vein, how much do we know about the difficulty of school content or curriculum, and the extent to which primary school students are coping? Would these students necessarily lose out if, for example, some content is removed?

Examinations, such as the PSLE, are billed by the MOE as a checkpoint to “gauge understanding of concepts and strengths” so that secondary school programmes can be better tailored to the needs of students, but how much do we know about their efficacy? And are we open to other modes of assessment?

Remember in 2010, when 16 prototype schools did away with their end-of-semester examinations for primary one pupils? This was after the MOE’s Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee in 2009 proposed to replace examinations with “bite-sized assessments” at the primary one and two levels. So what emerged from these trials? How have these primary one and two students performed since then, after two years of no examinations? Have their subject proficiencies or skills suffered as a consequence?

Examinations like the PSLE are laden with so many interpretations and experiences that parents and students have different expectations of what it should be. Given this, the MOE might want to be more explicit about the problems its policies seek to solve, moving beyond anecdote-driven conclusions. This lack of clarity between policies and problems is why many argue that the recent PSLE changes feel like no change at all and, besides levelling the secondary-school playing field, may do little to facilitate the desired mind-set shifts.

Even the anticipated success of reducing minute comparisons between scores and of making every secondary school a good school cannot be assumed. Already some are saying that the G should instead provide all secondary schools with better equipment, facilities, and teachers, when in fact it might be a chicken-and-egg problem. Since talented students – be it scholastically, or in a particular field – are central to any programme that a school or teacher wishes to run, then a critical mass of these students is needed within each school.

Outstanding concerns about the Direct School Admission or DSA scheme must be addressed too. When Mr Ng first announced the PSLE changes in Parliament, he added that a review of the scheme was underway. Students will be provided with more options, he said, and at the same time the talents or achievements identified will also be more specific. There are, nevertheless, worries that the DSA has actually created more stress and that the scheme benefits students from the more affluent families, and therefore have access to more opportunities.

In the next six years before 2021, in addition to the necessary changes to the DSA scheme, the MOE might want to set up a transparent appeal system to resist pressures from parents and alumni to stretch admission boundaries. The MOE must also be more explicit about the “distinctive strengths” and “niche programmes” of secondary schools, for parents and students to make more informed decisions. You can read our story here.

The inevitable implication, unfortunately, is that competition would now shift from academia to areas of specialisation. Perhaps, competition is something that will never quite go away, in Singapore. But at the very least, we can make it a little fairer.


Unsure of what the PSLE changes are about? Read our coverage here:

  1. 6 years is too long for longed-for PSLE change
  2. PSLE changes: Broader bands and psychological games
  3. How the new PSLE game is going to be played
  4. DSA: Don’t Study Anymore; play sports 


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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