views on Change to PSLE grading

by Education Cube, posted on Apr 3, 2016

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The online version of The Straits Times published an article “Change to PSLE grading: What could be in store?” on 3 April, 2016. In the article, it was mentioned that changes to how the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is graded may be revealed this year and could happen as early as this week, when the ministry presents it budget and plans for 2016. These changes were first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his 2013 National Day Rally speech. In his speech, he said that students could be placed in “wider bands” and given letter grades, the way O-and A-level examinations are marked.

Here on, we share our thoughts on these changes.

Firstly, the change means we now focus the performance based on the results of the individual rather than the cohort. Current T-score calculation relies a big part on the cohort’s average and standard deviation – which means that if the cohort is stronger, the student’s T-score will decrease, even if the student scores the same marks for all subjects. To illustrate this point, if the student score 70% for all subjects, her aggregate scores will be higher if the cohorts’ average is lower than the student’s 70%. Conversely, if the cohorts’ average is higher than the student’s, the student will receive a lower T-score. With the grade-banding, students will receive the grade according to how well they themselves perform in the exam, not how well they perform relative to others.

Secondly, with less focus on competing for scores down to the last point, there should be more breathing space for top students to perhaps focus on expanding their interest in other areas, rather than working on perfecting their scores. For average students, it will also be more meaningful and motivating to work on improving personal grades.

With the current system, what we have is one school that sits on top of the rest. We label this as the top school because it is the one with the highest cut-off points. With grade banding, we should eventually have more than one school admitting students with the best possible grade points. This reduces the competition of getting into that one top school, and forces the student or parent to consider factors other than “This is the best school in Singapore!”

In our recent PSLE results survey, we found that students with lower grades (4As) can in fact obtain higher scores than students with better grades (2A*s and 2A). For a twelve-year-old, the current system is exceptionally harsh when it boils down to who gets into which school based on that one-point difference although he or she may perform better in terms of grades. It is not easy to explain to a twelve-year-old that the quality of his A* is not as good as his or her neighbour’s. In such scenarios, the grade banding system will give the student with 2A*s and 2A better advantage.

In the survey, we also have parents asking if the exemption of one subject (usually Mother tongue) will result in the student getting better aggregate scores. We hear of parents bringing their child to see the psychologist for assessment just so that they can get recommendations for their child to be exempted from taking the subject. They do this as they believe poor performance in that one subject will average down the overall T-score. Although this situation impacts a small minority, we believe the same question will be asked when grade-banding is implemented because while it is technically easier to average scores when you have a range of 300 points to work with, it is harder to assign a grade to a subject not taken.  

How will this change impact Singaporean kids? Overall, we believe grade banding will work and is a welcomed change. The PSLE has been around since the 1960s. However, the competition to get into the few top schools has certainly gotten way hotter over the years as the population grew larger. It has now gone beyond a healthy competition into one that squeezes every possible bit out of the child at a young age at the expense of everything else. PSLE year is a nightmare for the majority students and parents in Singapore and a boon only for tuition centres. For the progressive development of our society, for Singapore to compete on the world stage, we need to allow time for our younger generation to discover their own niche, and be measured by their own merits. We need to give them space pursue non-academic hobbies and find their unique edge in this highly competitive world.

A copy of the PSLE report which was mentioned in the article can be found here.
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