COMMENT: Revised PSLE scoring system - why the need to change, and will things change?

(Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

By Dr Jason Tan

The Ministry of Education recently unveiled the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system that will be implemented in 2021.

Some of its key features include the move away from scoring students relative to their peers’ performance and grading them instead on their individual performance.

Secondly, the grading system has been revised. There is now greater transparency that allows parents and students to understand how the PSLE scores are calculated. In addition, there will now be a reduction in the number of possible PSLE scores.

Thirdly, there is now easier comparability between the grading systems for Standard and Foundation level subjects.

Another change involves admission to Special Assistance Plan secondary schools. Students who take Higher Chinese Language will no longer receive bonus points, although they will receive preferential consideration.

The Ministry of Education has also announced new eligibility criteria for enrolling in Higher Mother Tongue Language classes in secondary schools.

A particularly important feature is the introduction of choice order of schools as a tie-breaking criterion during the secondary school admission exercise. The Ministry of Education foresees that the widening of scoring bands will result in more students having similar PSLE scores, which in turn will lead to less differentiation across various secondary schools’ admission cut-off scores.

With the implementation of choice order of schools as an admission criterion, the Education Ministry is hoping parents and students will accord greater importance to factors such as school culture and schools’ niche programmes, instead of relying heavily on a school’s admission cut-off points, when selecting schools.

What has prompted the revision to the PSLE scoring system? There are a number of reasons to consider.

For one thing, there has been repeated public criticism over the past few decades that the current PSLE scoring system has far too wide a range of scores. This fact, coupled with the norm-referenced nature of the examination (i. e., scoring students relative to their peers’ performance), has contributed to inordinate levels of anxiety and stress among many parents and students.

At a macro level, the new scoring system is part of a broad Ministry of Education policy shift over the past two decades to address some of the persistent shortcomings in the education system. These include the societal obsession with academic grades and the question of how adequately schools are preparing students for the future.

The policy shift has involved several broad fronts.

First, different education pathways have been introduced, especially at the post-primary level in line with the idea of multiple pathways to success.

For instance, integrated programmes were first introduced in several secondary schools and junior colleges in order to allow top-performing students to bypass the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level examinations. The hope was that these students would then be able to devote more time to non-academic endeavours such as leadership development.

Secondly, there has been a move away from the rigidity of streaming, in which students were boxed in within their respective curricula and examinations. Streaming was replaced with subject-based banding in primary schools in 2008, and secondary schools will follow suit by 2024.

Thirdly, students have been allowed greater flexibility in movement across pathways. An example of this is the provision of greater opportunities for Normal (Academic) students to sit for the GCE Ordinary Level examinations at the end of four years of schooling and then enrol in polytechnics.

Admission criteria have also been amended. For instance, secondary schools with affiliated primary schools have to set ahead 20 percent of their Secondary one places for students from non-affiliated primary schools. The Direct School Admission scheme allows secondary schools, junior colleges and polytechnics to admit students based on their non-academic talents.

Yet another key policy thrust has been revising assessment policies. One of these revisions has involved the reduction in the number of tests and examinations in primary and secondary schools.

Finally, the Ministry of Education has rolled out Character and Citizenship Education in all schools since 2012. This is part of a bid to signal the importance of 21st century competencies such as global awareness and information skills.

The revisions to the PSLE scoring system are in line with the Ministry of Education’s general policy direction. As mentioned earlier, one of the stated intentions of the new scoring system is to reduce societal anxiety over PSLE grades. Another is to encourage parents and students to move away from using schools’ admission cut-off scores as a primary criterion when choosing secondary schools, which would appear to dovetail with former Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s “Every school a good school” ideal.

Changing well-entrenched attitudes and beliefs will not be accomplished overnight. In his 2013 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged the need to reform the PSLE scoring system.

He said many parents felt the examination determined students’ futures because of its paramount role in sorting students into different secondary school streams. He also recognised the “tremendous stress” when “the whole family takes the examination”.

PM Lee claimed the current range of PSLE scores made distinctions among students that were “meaningless and too fine”, and that secondary school postings should not be determined based on such minuscule distinctions.

That PM Lee had to discuss the PSLE in his National Day Rally speech testifies to the societal obsession with academic grades. His speech also made reference to the intense efforts some parents made to enrol their children in prestigious primary schools.

There is still a widespread belief that doing well academically leads students to better post-secondary outcomes, more prestigious jobs and higher incomes. Probably this well-entrenched belief is a natural consequence of the decades-long association in many people’s minds of “merit” within a meritocratic system as being demonstrated primarily through academic achievement.

In conclusion, the new PSLE scoring system is part of a host of Ministry of Education policy initiatives that are trying to promote change not only in systems and structures, but also importantly in people’s attitudes and beliefs.

How easy will it be to get parents to feel less anxious about their children’s schooling and to embrace multiple education pathways?

There is no escaping the fact that education still serves as a major sorting mechanism and provides hope for inter-generational social mobility. Furthermore, various schools and pathways are still accorded differing degrees of societal prestige and worth. That is why so many parents are willing to invest in private tutoring in order to ensure their children a competitive edge.

Ensuring the success of this latest policy reform will therefore need to be an individual as well as a collective effort.

Dr Jason Tan is associate professor in policy & leadership studies at the National Institute of Education.

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