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PSLE score system overhaul

System Overhaul for PSLE

Probably few initiatives can have greater impact on the education sector in Singapore than the announcement by PM Lee that the T-score grading system for the PSLE will be overhauled in the future. The PM does not use the word ‘change’ or ‘modify’, but ‘overhaul’, a word that suggests the huge degree of transformation. And considering that much of the stress for primary school leavers actually comes from the PSLE results, the overhaul is going to have significant influence on how students and parents approach this critical national exam. It is the hope of the government that the initiative is going to create an attitude change towards learning and education that is beneficial to children as well as their families.


What sets the PSLE apart?

A careful observer of the Singapore education system will realize that the primary school exams, including the much dreaded PSLE, are the only occasions where students are compared based on absolute total scores. The O-levels and N-levels adopt L1R5 or similar combinations, the A-levels look at grades instead of individual scores. And assessment results in polytechnics and

PSLE score system overhaul

PSLE score system overhaul

universities are measured by GPA, an essentially grade-based system. The difference between a score-based and a grade-based system is enormous. If higher institutions admit students based on their scores, then one mark of difference can mean an admission or rejection. Students will compete for extra marks, and there is always a need of doing better than one’s peers. There will not be such a thing as ‘doing well enough’, since one can always be outperformed by his peers, sometimes literally by just one mark. Stress level will be kept high, as we often see among students in countries such as China and India where score-based admissions are used for universities entrance exams. Asking primary school students to go through the toughest form of assessment seems a disproportionate burden on them and their families. Hence the overhaul of the PSLE is going to be a welcome move by the government.


A real promise to holistic education

Once the current t-score assessment is replaced by grade-oriented marking, students will have much more freedom to pursue their own interests and passions outside classroom. The need for competition on the margin disappears, as someone who scores 99 out of 100 is absolutely no different than someone who scores 80, if 80 is the lowest score for the best grade (such as an A grade). Such a system is conducive to the holistic development of primary school children. Activities in primary schools serve the purpose of building communication skills, leadership capabilities as well as character education. Once the academic pressure on students is reduced, students are freed to participate in more activities, knowing that they will be doing well for the PSLE as long as they maintain the grades they are in. Perhaps more important, this initiative removes the guilt of some students who participate actively in extra-curriculum activities sometimes at the expense of their academic results. With academic competition being reduced, their commitment for their passions will be appreciated and supported by their teachers and parents who may otherwise persuade them to focus more on study to prepare for a competitive national exam.

A good system is a fair system

Lastly, this new system also contributes to the fairness of education. It has such an impact on two grounds. First, it takes into consideration the natural fluctuation of scores of students taking exams. We all know that the score for a particular exam is not perfectly indicative of a student’s academic ability, as his performance can be influenced by health condition, type of exam questions or simply his mood on that day. We certainly do not want to reject a student away from a place he deserves just because he does not do as well as he should for the PSLE. By adopting a grade-based assessment, students whose scores fall into a certain range are considered equally good, therefore largely eliminating the unfair and unfortunate situation described above. Moreover, if secondary schools admit students based on grades, secondary school themselves may no longer be measured by the scores of the students they take in every year. This blurs the distinction between schools. With the current system, we can identify the so-called top-ten schools based on the lowest cut-off point for the PSLE scores. But with grades replacing scores, there will be much more schools who fall into the same grade, and in the long run, children and parents will not fight for ‘elite’ schools, as they simply may not be able to tell which one is more elite. Such a shift in attitude is important to the fairer allocation of resources among secondary schools.

However, as PM Lee said, this new measure will not kick in until years later. This is because the changes created by the measure are huge, affecting for example how secondary schools are admitting students and how the MOE should allocate teachers and other resources to different schools. But the trend is there. The trend is to reduce unnecessary stress for primary school students. The aim is to make holistic development live up to its name. This initiative is a good step forward on the long journey of educational reform.

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