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Grade system means 'one subject can't save another'

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 24, 2013

WHILE many parents welcome the removal of the T-score for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), some now fear that pupils who are weaker in certain subjects may lose out under a new grades-based scoring system to be introduced.

Currently, secondary schools admit pupils based on their T-score, which is aggregated from all four subjects.

The main criticism of the T-score is that it sorts children too finely as it is based on how well a child does relative to his peers.

At the same time, however, under the T-score system, it is possible for a pupil to "make up" for a weak subject by doing very well in the other three. This means he can still get a good T-score with three very high A*s and one B.

This strategy would not work if letter grades were used instead, as they are in the O- and A- level examinations, said some parents.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced at the National Day Rally on Sunday that in a few years' time, the T-score will be replaced with grade bands.

Under the new system, pupils will get a grade band similar to how students get A1 to F9 for the O levels. These grades will then be converted into points for admission to secondary schools.

The Ministry of Education has yet to give details on how many points each grade will get, and whether an A*, for instance, will get proportionately more points than an A, or extra points.

The uncertainty has caused anxiety among some parents who said their children excel in other subjects, but may not do well in their mother tongue like Chinese.

Putting it bluntly, marketing manager Valerie Teo, 39, said: "You can't use one subject to save another."

She has two girls in Primary 2 and 4, both of whom are weaker in Chinese.

Some also pointed out that unlike the O levels where students can pick their best subjects when applying to junior colleges or polytechnics, the PSLE has only four compulsory subjects.

Kindergarten principal Jake Goh, who took part in the Our Singapore Conversation exercise on education, suggests one way to widen the options would be to let children count other subjects, such as music and art.

Housewife Germaine Chan, 39, whose daughter will be in Primary 1 next year, agreed that it would not be "very fair" for PSLE pupils to be graded like O-level students.

"But you can't please everybody. Some prefer a system using broader grades because it is less stressful, while those with smarter kids prefer the "finer" system - like the T-score - because it gives them an edge," she said.

When contacted, the Education Ministry said it would work with the relevant stakeholders on the changes. More information will be released in due course.

Still, some parents are glad there is a shift towards less precise scores. A parent who wanted to be known only as Mrs Ng said that using grade bands means "there's less stress to get every mark".

She added: "At the A levels, you also only have four or five subjects, and the banding system works."

Former Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School principal Lee Siew Choo said: "It is premature to worry now. I'm sure the ministry will tweak the system and examine all the downsides of any grading system."

ateng@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 24, 2013

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