Some pupils can write out numbers in sequence, but others struggle to even hold a pencil.
A disparity in ability has made it a challenge for Katong School, a special education (Sped) school, to make sure each cohort of pupils are on the same page.
To better tailor its teaching, it is now testing about 50 of its Primary 1 to 4 pupils on numeracy skills.
The school, which takes in seven- to 18-year-olds with autism or mild intellectual disabilities, wants to see if these pupils can count in sequence without a visual guide or if they can write numbers in order without dictation, among other things.
"Some have been exposed to kindergartens, some come with zero knowledge... some are still grappling with the pencil," said Madam Choo Pee Ling, the school's mathematics head of department and the principal investigator behind the numeracy study.
"So although they are of the same age, they have different abilities. Currently, our system places all incoming students on the first maths module, but that doesn't address the whole cohort," she added.
The test will look at two things: learners' inborn capacity and their ability to acquire new knowledge.
Teachers can then teach pupils in targeted ways, addressing their learning gaps. For example, a boy or girl who cannot count from one to 10 will be taught to do so.
This targeted teaching is possible as each class at the school has seven to eight pupils to a teacher.
After half a year, pupils will be profiled again to see if the targeted learning has had a positive effect. The school will then review its curriculum to see which topics need to be taught and in what order.
Associate Professor Noel Chia Kok Hwee, of the Early Childhood and Special Needs Education Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, said Katong School is probably the first Sped school to profile the learning needs of its pupils.
While the Ministry of Education rolled out a curriculum framework for Sped schools in 2012, they still generally have to tweak their curriculum to meet the unique needs of their students. The 20 Sped schools here cater to different disabilities of varying severity.
A customised curriculum for special needs students can help the school better prepare them for tests such as the Workplace Literacy and Numeracy, a requirement by many schools offering job training to those with disabilities, said Katong School principal Lim Cheng Liew.
She said she intends to put incoming Primary 1 to 4 pupils through this test for the next few years. It has no plans to test other subjects for now.
Prof Chia, who is working with the school as a research consultant on this project, welcomes this as the bigger sample size will help determine the norm when it comes to the learning capabilities of those with special needs in Singapore.
Currently, Katong School is relying on British age-group norms.
Said Madam Lim of the numeracy test: "This is very useful in assessing what we are teaching, how we are teaching, so we can plan ahead to ready our kids."
This article was first published on Feb 22, 2015.
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