Mixed signals on cut-off points and school admissions

First, it was reported that secondary schools were told to no longer entertain any appeals from Primary 6 hopefuls who fail to meet their cut-off point - taking a strict stance against an old practice by principals of exercising some amount of discretion in deciding such admissions. Then, it was revealed last month that junior colleges were told the same thing.

But in the midst of talk of holistic education and scrapping the PSLE T-scores, of discouraging parents from sending children for tuition to chase that last mark, of giving universities and polytechnics even more room to decide on whom to admit - the Education Ministry's (MOE) stance on strictly adhering to cut-off points seems to go against the new direction of learning.

So why now?

Educators believe that the MOE's directive is most likely meant to reduce the flow of students seeking places in more popular schools after the posting period.

Secondary schools, for instance, could each receive 80 to 100 appeals every year.

This annual "churning", coupled with falling cohort sizes, contributes to the declining enrolment in less sought-after schools - leaving them with as few as three new Secondary 1 classes even as popular schools fill about 10 classes each year.

Pupils with their PSLE results. The MOE's stance on strictly adhering to cut-off points seems to go against the new direction of learning.
Pupils with their PSLE results. The MOE's stance on strictly adhering to cut-off points seems to go against the new direction of learning. ST FILE PHOTO

This year, eight secondary schools were merged into four because of low enrolment and falling demand. Another seven did not have a single Secondary 1 class this year because of dwindling numbers.

While it may be seen as a natural weeding-out process, the closure or merger of schools at the lower end is unfortunate as some of them are more equipped to handle students from difficult backgrounds.

DETERMINED BY A SINGLE DIGIT

Still, the move is puzzling - it comes at a time when parents and students have been told to relook their priorities in education.

From scrapping school ranking and banding to not naming top exam scorers or revealing the highest and lowest PSLE scores, the message is strong and clear: Stop focusing solely on academic results.

Some people have applauded the MOE's decision to tighten the appeal requirements, saying that it means a completely objective system.

But affiliation favour, which can give PSLE pupils a huge 20 to 30 points advantage in entering a secondary school, should also be scrapped then.

As parents against the change have pointed out, there is now very little or no room for second chances. Even as students are told to stop chasing that last mark and instead pursue their interests in sports and arts and develop character, the bottom line is that their entry into a school is determined by a single digit.

While many students chase after popular schools believing that it gives them a further head start in academics, there are others who are chasing their passions. A student may be a talented musician or a budding athlete hoping to join a school because it has a co-curricular activity or programme not easily found elsewhere.

One parent told me how his son had successfully appealed to get into a secondary school whose cut-off point he missed by two points but which offered a sport that he had been involved in since he was young.

A few days into the new school year, his place was suddenly withdrawn, and no more appeals were considered.

He ended up at his original posting. The cut-off point for both schools was in the 240+ band.

He, like many other students, had also applied through the Direct School Admission (DSA) route earlier but did not get through.

Less than 10 per cent of each cohort is accepted through the DSA, which allows schools to admit students before the PSLE using other criteria such as sports or arts talent.

Some flexibility in the appeal process provides a middle route - for students not skilled enough for the DSA but who are still good in their co-curricular activities and interests, and just missed a place through their academic scores.

There must be more room for second chances and aspirations.

NOT JUST ABOUT NUMBERS

Two weeks ago, Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made a call in Parliament for the Government to look beyond figures, and to rely on judgments and discretion, when merited. "What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters - the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, people and country, which can only be captured in part by numbers," he said.

He was not talking about the issue of school admissions but of governance which may have to keep up with a complex world.

Yet his words are equally applicable to the field of schools, where scores and rankings are prevalent.

The MOE has in the last decade stressed that education is more than about numbers and grades but also about learning skills for the changing workforce, and recognising a wider definition of success.

On its own webpage, it states: "Besides judging our students' performance through examinations, we are also looking at other and broader measures of how well they do in education."

A single point or two should not be all that defines a student.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline 'Mixed signals on cut-off points and school admissions'. Print Edition | Subscribe