39-year old housewife, Clarissa Wong, breathes a sign of relief as soon as she read that the aggregate score for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will be replaced with wider scoring bands from 2021. Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng (Schools) announced that the new scoring system which affects this year’s Primary 1 students, will be similar to the grading given at the GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. He also explained that PSLE grading will also no longer be based on how pupils do relative to their peers. Since last year, the mother of an eight-year-old Primary 2 student has been feeling anxious about talks of changes to the PSLE scoring system. “While I acknowledge that the current aggregate score system is stressful, it is still a transparent system. I know what to expect. I don’t want to grapple with a new system and feel as if I have to play the guessing game.”
Talks of introducing changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) have been ongoing for a while. As early as 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech, spoke of overhauling the scoring system for the PSLE, with the aggregate score replaced by wider bands for grades similar of those used in the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations. The objective of the overhaul is to give space and to educate and develop students more holistically. At that time Prime Minister Lee said it would take several years for changes to be introduced and implemented.
Last August, then-Education Minister, Mr. Heng Swee Keat, said that the makeover of the PSLE was still some time away with the announcement to come in 2016 at the earliest. He also added that parents and pupils will be given enough time to respond and adjust to the changes when they are implemented.
The issue is brought to the forefront again when a recent Straits Times article examines how a new grading system might work. Parents seem to be divided into two camps on the issue of abolishing the aggregate score system. On one hand, there are parents who welcome the change. These parents believe that a wider banding would take a lot of stress off their children and enable them to focus on a more holistic development of their skills and interests. On the other hand, some parents are concerned about how exactly primary school leavers will be sorted into secondary schools if the PSLE aggregate is scrapped
Although the PSLE aggregate score system has been criticized for being too rigid and being the cause of much stress for children, parents and teachers, many acknowledge that it is a precise indicator of pupil performance and provides a clear system for allocating pupils to secondary schools which set their cut-off points depending on the applications they receive.
With wider bands being introduced, some parents are concerned that schools might put more emphasis on non-academic achievements and attributes such as leadership, community involvement, public specking, art and music.
35-year old Human Resource Executive, Seralynn Chew, whose daughter is in Primary 1 this year, feels impending stress. She wonders how schools will decide which student to take in if there are many with the same grades. “Honestly, if my child doesn’t make it to the top schools because she didn’t score well enough, I accept that. However, if you were to tell me that my child didn’t make it because she doesn’t have leadership qualities, special talents and skills at such an early point in her life, then I have issues with that. Trying to ensure that my child has good results is tough enough; now I have to ensure that my child is an all-rounder too.”
While this policy change is introduced with the good intention to take some heat off the stressful system and encourage parents and educators not to be too preoccupied with chasing scores right down to the decimal places, the policy shift might not result in less stress for parents, students and educators, at least not in the short run. Even if the policy change succeeds in cooling the current pressure-cooker of the PSLE system, the similar problem will occur again at the later stages of a student’s academic career. GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels students do not have a less stressful testing environment even when they receive wider bands at grades; they still face intense competition and stress.
The root of the issue lies perhaps in our emphasis on academics and paper qualifications. Unless there is a major paradigm shift, parents will continue to do the best they can to ensure that they get their children in the popular schools because they genuinely believe that being these schools will give their children an advantage. It is unlike that a policy change in the score system will translate into less pressure for the students unless there are changes in society and cultural perspectives.
The Ministry of Education will take the next few years to develop and the test the new examination and secondary school posting systems to ensure that it will continue to be a fair and transparent system based on academic merit. “My wife and I try not to worry excessively,” said IT Manger Winston Teo. The couple’s son is currently in Primary 1. “Until more details are announced, we will continue to ensure that he does well in school and encourage him to participate in a range of activities so that we can help him develop his interests.”