How will primary school leavers be sorted into secondary schools if the Primary School Leaving Examination (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, said: "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 said 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 said.
NEW GRADING SYSTEM - HOW COULD IT WORK?
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.
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 said.
Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education's academic division, said: "The focus should not be on how one performs relative to others, but how well the person himself performs in the exam."
Educators said 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.
LESS TRANSPARENCY IN SECONDARY SCHOOL POSTINGS?
For all the brickbats against the PSLE aggregate score, some parents feel that it provides a clear-cut system for allocating pupils to secondary schools, which set cut-off points depending on applications.
A one-point difference in aggregate score may mean that a child is posted to one secondary school instead of another - too fine a sieve according to many, but there are those who believe it is fair and provides transparency.
Said 44-year-old housewife Lydia Sim, who has two daughters aged 11 and 13: "The aggregate score doesn't leave room for speculation. Those who work harder to achieve better marks than their peers should not be robbed of a chance at entering good schools."
So how would the posting exercise work if PSLE scores are simply grade bands?
Each grade may carry a certain number of points, and these can be used to decide which secondary school a child qualifies for - the way O-level grades are converted into points for admission into polytechnics and junior colleges. But these would still mean larger numbers of pupils with similar scores.
"If there are many students with the same grades, how will schools determine who is more deserving?" asked Mrs Wong Xue Ling, 41, a housewife, whose daughter is in Primary 6.
This has raised worries that schools will give higher weightage to non-academic achievements and this could possibly translate into greater pressure to send children for enrichment classes.
Ms Candy Lau, 46, a technical manager whose daughters are in Primary 5 and Secondary 2, said: "On top of doing well in their studies, do primary school children also have to excel in areas such as public speaking, art or music to stand out from their peers?"
Administrative manager Siti Abdullah, 40, who has a nine-year-old son, is worried schools will select students based on hard-to-measure attributes such as leadership potential. "These are young kids. It would be quite stressful for them if the non-academic areas - the fun stuff - become part of the criteria for admission into a school," she said.
Some wonder if schools will also be given greater autonomy in choosing who to admit, and this could even involve interviews.
"Popular secondary schools may have to select students based on other aspects such as community service, co-curricular activity performance, leadership potential and resilience, which may be more subjective," said Dr Seah.
Educators hope parents can take the changes in the right spirit, and not simply force children to replace one form of tuition with another.
One parent who posted on the KiasuParents forum also wondered if a pupil who scored 90 marks in each of the four subjects will end up being rated higher than another who scored 99 in three subjects but 85 in another, and if that was fair.
Educators agree there is no perfect system, but most believe the move away from aggregate scores is a positive one. Parents whom The Sunday Times spoke to agreed.
Engineer Daniel Yeo, 45, whose son received his PSLE results last year, said a grade banding system will definitely take some pressure off parents and children.
"Most parents have been waiting for this for a long time," he said.
Additional reporting by Wong Shiying
THROUGH THE YEARS
PSLE is introduced. Pupils are told only if they passed or failed.
T-scores are introduced, but not revealed to pupils.
Letter grades A, B, C and D are used. Pupils have to pass at least three out of the four subjects - English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics and Science. It is compulsory to pass English.
Grade A* is introduced.
T-scores are issued to candidates, and the overall highest and lowest scores are printed on result slips.
Direct school admission at the secondary level is introduced. The scheme allows pupils to secure places in secondary schools based on their talent in sports, the arts or academics, before their PSLE results are released.
The Education Ministry (MOE) decides to stop announcing the top PSLE scorer, to cut excessive competition and stress.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announces in his National Day Rally speech that the T-score will be replaced with wider grade bands, such as those used in the O- and A-level exams.
MOE does not reveal the highest and lowest scores achieved by pupils in a cohort, to encourage them not to compare results.
This article was first published on April 3, 2016.
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