Secondary school placement a key issue

The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) has been an emotional issue, with parents decrying the stress placed on our 12-year-olds. But I think the problem is secondary school placement and not the PSLE grading ("What will new grading system look like?";yesterday).

Currently, each PSLE subject is given a letter grade ( A*, A, B, C, D, E, U), to which, unfortunately, not much attention is paid. Instead, the main focus is on the single score - the aggregate score used for school placement.

We should accept the fact that there are limited places in popular schools and view the problem as it really is - a competition for limited places.

Any competition will rank the competitors in some way. So why should we be upset when pupils are compared against one another to determine who should be given the limited places?

Would changing the system to resemble the O levels help? I fear not. Because at the end of the day, an aggregate has to be computed and ranked. Indeed, it will be worse because it will be clear where the lost aggregate point is.

I dread the day when pupils receiving their PSLE result slips cry when they find themselves getting A1 instead of A*, or A2 instead of A1.

Indeed, I used to teach some high achievers who cried when they found they scored A2 instead of A1 for their O-level Mother Tongue, and were in a dilemma as to whether to retake the examination so that they can improve their aggregate score.

Do we really want to split the broad grades A, B, C into finer grades just so that we can compute a "better measure" that is more "broad band" than the current aggregate score?

Do we want to destroy the more meaningful grades A, B, C and replace them with A1, A2, B3, B4 and so on?

Is the distinction between the grades A1 and A2 at the PSLE level, say, in mathematics, going to be meaningful enough without affecting a child's confidence in his mathematics ability?

I suggest we take a hard look at the way we view the PSLE, which is essentially to assess a child's achievement in English, Mother Tongue, mathematics and science after six years of compulsory primary school education. Perhaps we should keep the existing grades without the aggregate score.

Secondary school placement could be based on it, but a separate contest could be held for those who wish to compete for popular schools. Or just use the total raw PSLE scores.

Alice Heng Wang Cheng (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Secondary school placement a key issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe