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Parents welcome less stress for kids, but worry about transparency

Madam Janet Yong and her two sons, Eugene Kong (left), 10, and Lucas Kong, seven, who are in Primary 4 and 1 respectively. Under the new system, grades for pupils will be converted into points for admission to secondary schools.
Madam Janet Yong and her two sons, Eugene Kong (left), 10, and Lucas Kong, seven, who are in Primary 4 and 1 respectively. Under the new system, grades for pupils will be converted into points for admission to secondary schools.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Parents were all for the long-awaited change in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system, saying it would go some way to reduce stress, but wanted to know more about how it would work.

With the scrapping of the T-score, they asked what criteria schools would use in selecting pupils with comparable results, and whether this would lead to a less transparent system.

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

Currently, pupils are given letter grades for the four subjects they take. But when they apply to secondary schools, they use an aggregate of their numerical scores for each subject, called a T-score.

The problem with the T-score, which has been used since 1980, is that it sorts children too finely as it is based on how well a child does relative to his peers, said parents. For example, the one-point gap between a T-score of 230 and 231 could result in a significant difference as to which school a pupil is posted. That has led to an obsession over precise scores.

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 be converted into points for admission to secondary schools. For instance, an A* could mean one point, like in the O-level system.

When contacted yesterday, the Education Ministry said it will be releasing further details of the new scoring system in due course.

MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Education, said the upcoming change may allow schools to admit students based on other criteria besides grades, such as their co-curricular activity records, testimonials and interviews.

MP Denise Phua, who also sits on the GPC, agreed, pointing out that "even Ivy League institutions do not use such narrow admission criteria".

Parents welcomed the new grading system, saying it would help relieve pressure. Housewife Janet Yong, 40, who has two sons in P1 and P4, said: "It's a good thing to move away from detailed grading, because now we compare marks, like 98 versus 99."

Some expressed fears though, that it could lead to a less transparent system. Without the T-scores, schools may have to choose from a larger pool of pupils and use more subjective admission criteria. For instance, if a school has 400 vacancies, but 450 pupils with four As apply to it, it has to decide who to accept.

Said Ms Cheryl Liew-Chng, 45, who heads a consultancy firm: "I prefer the precise T-scores, as it gives a clear picture and doesn't allow for speculation." She has three sons aged six, 10 and 15.

But Madam Yong felt that living with some "flexibility" is required, in order to move away from a system that focuses too much on results. "There will be some uncertainty but, as parents, we have to trust that the ministry will still allocate based on meritocracy. But we need to be told what else is being measured," she said.

Schools approached said the change was for the better. A spokesman for Raffles Girls' School said it would "allow for more holistic development of students". A Hwa Chong Institution spokesman said it would "foster greater student diversity".

Parents' attitudes, however, must also change, noted former Raffles Girls' School principal Carmee Lim. "Parents must realise that not every child needs to go to a top school, and they must focus on real learning. Children have other talents besides doing well in exams."

ateng@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Linette Lai