Foundation level at PSLE: Helping pupils learn at their own pace

The Ministry of Education (MOE) recently shared some updates on the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system, which will be implemented in 2021 as part of our wider efforts to move away from the over-emphasis on examination grades.

As with any new system, people will need time to understand the changes. We understand that some parents have concerns regarding the scoring of Foundation-level subjects and how it will impact the placement of their children in secondary schools.

We hope to address this by sharing the rationale of having Foundation-level subjects and how they are assessed.

The Standard curriculum in primary schools caters to the majority of pupils. Examinations such as the PSLE are used to assess the levels of understanding of pupils across a wide spectrum.

Under the new Achievement Level (AL) system, AL1 to AL8 represent those levels. Purely from the point of view of determining each child's level of understanding, we do not need Foundation-level subjects.

However, there are pupils who are particularly weak in certain subjects for a variety of reasons. These pupils may be pulled out for small group coaching, but they may still struggle with the rigour of the Standard curriculum and become demotivated.

We recognise that a "one size fits all" curriculum does not work for education and that we need to cater to our pupils' learning needs.

This is the philosophy of Subject-Based Banding (SBB) - we offer subjects at different levels of difficulty and provide the flexibility for our pupils to take the subject at a level that meets their learning needs.

Therefore, we offer Foundation-level subjects at Primary 5 and 6, which focus on fundamental concepts to help pupils build the foundation to progress further. Differentiated teaching is a proven approach to helping pupils stay engaged. This is the main purpose of Foundation subjects: to sustain the pupil's motivation to learn.

Equally important is figuring how best to score Foundation-level subjects in the PSLE. Foundation subjects will be graded at AL A to C. A is for 75 marks and above, B for 30 to 74 marks and C for under 30 marks. These are pegged to AL6 to AL8 of Standard-level subjects respectively.

The treatment of Foundation-level subject scores is actually similar under the current T-Score system and the AL system.

Under the T-Score system, the marks for Foundation-level subjects are scaled down before being added to the overall T-Score.

We apply the same scaling approach for Foundation subjects in the new AL scoring system. What has changed is that under the standards-referenced AL scoring, it will be clear as to how each AL contributes to the total PSLE score.

With this change, questions will arise about how these subjects are scored and whether the grades reflect the effort of the pupil.

To be a fair measure, the grades need to reflect the pupil's level of understanding. The three-grade differential for Foundation subjects is sufficient because these subjects cover basic concepts. Based on the curriculum and demands of Foundation-level subjects, a pupil scoring AL A has displayed a level of understanding similar to a pupil who scores AL6 under the Standard curriculum.

One might then ask why we cannot make Foundation subjects slightly harder and let the student score AL5 or above.

Our prime consideration is ensuring that our Foundation pupils can cope with the subject, so we need to carefully manage the curriculum and assessment demands.

In our schools, our teachers are able to assess whether a pupil should take a subject at the Standard or Foundation level. If a pupil who initially takes the subject at the Foundation level at Primary 5 subsequently improves tremendously and has the potential to score better than AL6, we will encourage him or her to take the Standard curriculum in Primary 6.

Educationally, it is better for the pupil to take a subject at a level that will keep him or her engaged and motivated to learn.

At the same time, we maintain this flexibility and porosity in the education system to cater to those who improve and are able to take on a more demanding level later.

There are also questions on why the range of marks determining each grade between AL1 and AL8 is not the same, and is wider for the lower grades. For example: Within AL1 and AL4, the raw mark range for a grade could be up to 11 marks; as for AL5 to AL8, the range for a grade could be up to 25 marks.

This is because of the way the curriculum and examinations are designed - the grades and levels of understanding are not linear.

A more intuitive explanation is this: When we learn something new, after some initial lessons and practice, if and after we master the basic concepts, we often find ourselves improving by leaps and bounds. But, as we get better, the improvements become small steps, and finally, as we reach a high level, we inch just a little further, even after much learning and practice. The ALs and mark ranges reflect the curriculum and this reality of learning.

The PSLE is only one of many checkpoints in a child's learning journey. Even after taking a Foundation-level subject, pupils can progress to the Express stream.

Furthermore, we have SBB in all our secondary schools today, allowing students to take a subject at a more demanding level, according to their strengths and interests.

Also, full SBB will be introduced in 2024. This will move us further away from the current concepts of streaming and allow us to instead focus on each student's learning needs, which is far more important in our education system.

The world is rapidly changing, and when our children grow up, the demands on them will be vastly different.

So, we need to move away from a system that over-emphasises academic grades and towards a system which focuses on helping our children learn for life.

In that regard, we are glad that these changes to the PSLE have brought out such discussions, because the acute worry over examination grades is precisely what our society needs to shift away from.

• Wong Siew Hoong is Director-General of Education at the Ministry of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2019, with the headline 'Foundation level at PSLE: Helping pupils learn at their own pace'. Print Edition | Subscribe