LESS STRESS? How will primary school leavers be sorted into secondary schools PSLE aggregate score is scrapped and replaced with simple grade bands such as A, B and C?
This is the question at the top of parents’ minds when asked about the long-awaited change to the national exam, which could be announced some time this year.
Still, most parents and educators agree that removing the aggregate score will reduce stress on pupils, and instead of chasing that final few marks, they can focus on a more holistic development of their skills and interests.
Expressing the most common complaint about the current scoring system, parent Lee Kah Cheng, a 37-year-old IT manager with a seven-year-old son, says: “Our kids should not be defined by a single score and have their future determined by that.”
On one popular education forum, parents even discuss starting PSLE “training” for children from as early as Primary 3.
National University of Singapore lecturer Kelvin Seah says a banding system is likely to lower the pressure children face in the lead-up to the national exam, and encourage a more flexible and diverse education.
“Although the aggregate score is a sharper indicator of pupil performance, it leads to a very competitive situation because every point matters. But the move to grade bands will likely reduce the risk that children are too finely sorted by academic ability at a young age. After all, pupils who score anything between 90 and 100 marks, for instance, will get the same grade.”
A similar point was stressed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his 2013 National Day Rally when he first revealed that the major revamp of PSLE grading was in the works. “At the age of 12, one examination, four papers and you want to measure the child to so many decimal points… It is a distinction which is meaningless and too fine to make,” he says.
MORE LIKE O AND A LEVELS? In his speech, PM Lee said that students could be given letter grades and placed in “wider bands” – the way O- and A-level examinations are marked. Most educators and parents hope that the new grading system will be more like the A levels, where the grades are fewer and bands are wider.
In the O levels, which children take at the end of secondary school, grades are divided into A (1,2), B (3,4), C (5,6), D7, E8, and F9. A grade of C6 or better is considered a pass at the O levels.
Grades for the A levels, which students sit at the end of junior college, consist of A, B, C, D, E, S and U – with S signifying an O-level pass but an A-level fail. The PSLE also provides grades A*, A, B, C, D, E and U, but these matter less compared to the aggregate score.
MEASURED AGAINST PEERS? One issue that educators raised is whether the new PSLE grading method will be based on a child’s actual score, or will the score be weighted against those of his or her peers.
The current aggregate system does exactly that. It involves working out a child’s so-called T-score for each subject – English, Mother Tongue, mathematics or science – by ranking his score within the cohort.
That, critics say, turns the PSLE into a direct competition between pupils, and pushes parents into trying to outdo each other by giving their children more tuition and at an earlier age.
Associate Professor Jason Tan, an education policy expert at the National Institute of Education, believes the new grading system may be set against a bell curve.
“Our exam system here is a norm-referenced one, where a student’s performance is ranked in relation to other students’ performance, which means that there will be a spread of different scores in a cohort,” he says.
Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education‘s academic division, says: “The focus should not be on how one performs relative to others, but how well the person himself performs in the exam.”
Educators says this will be more in line with the efforts of the Ministry of Education (MOE) and schools to move away from an over- emphasis on grades.
Since 2012, MOE has not named the top PSLE scorer. A year later, it stopped revealing the highest and lowest scores in the cohort.
Primary schools have also been recognising their best performers in groups rather than individually. They celebrate the achievements of those who overcame odds in their lives or did well in non-academic areas such as sports.