PSLE changes: Pressure to scale AL pyramid will persist

The Ministry of Education's explanation of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) reforms was purposeful in its bullet-point simplicity: "From 2021 onwards, the PSLE will be scored with wider bands and the scores will reflect the student's individual performance and not his performance relative to his peers."

The current system assigns each pupil a T-score based on his marks in four PSLE subjects. His score is based on how his performance is ranked against that of others.

Under the new Achievement Level (AL) system, pupils' scores are grouped into AL bands based on their absolute scores, and not how they rank against one another. For example, a pupil with 85/100 could get a low T-score in the current system if his peers outdo him.

In the new system, 85/100 earns him an AL2, regardless of how others perform. A pupil's total PSLE score will be the sum of the AL scores of four subjects. If he gets four AL1s, his score will be four, the best possible score. The worst score is 32.

The present T-score system, where every last mark in every paper in the PSLE changes the national ranking of a candidate, has cultivated an obsession with marks, as every mark matters. The current cut-off point system used for centralised posting decisions has been criticised as inducing stress.

Do the reforms solve the "problems" without creating new ones?


It is true the AL system solves the "problem" of fine differentiation. However, I doubt the new system will reduce competitive pressure on pupils, whether at the top or across the achievement levels. (See table on AL and marks.)

Those with marks of 90 and above out of 100 get an AL1; 85 to 89 gets you an AL2, 80 to 84 an AL3, and so on. There are eight ALs that form a pyramid of sorts.

The 90-100 band for achieving the pinnacle AL1 is broad, presumably to affirm the principle that chasing for those extra marks above 90 should make no difference to candidates competing at the highest levels.

Parents of consistent AL1 performers will celebrate. Junior need no longer best the entire PSLE cohort to secure the 270+ T-score that allows her to "write her own ticket". Perhaps Junior can now drop that second weekly higher mother tongue tutorial class. The costs in time, energy and monies outweigh the potential benefits.

Candidates in AL2 and AL3 territory will applaud the small five-mark gap to the next AL. They will, however, face immense pressure from Tiger mums and dads to ascend the AL hierarchy. The temptation to tell Junior that she needs a mere six marks (from 79 to 85) to jump two ALs is just irresistible.

Aspirational parents do not aim to defeat the policy goal. Their single-minded purpose is purely instrumental. An imperative of parenthood is that one closes one's eyes and ears to all logical rationalisations and gives to the child every competitive advantage within one's power. Can anyone really blame such a parent? Pressure to scale the AL pyramid will be omnipresent.

Those who score 65 marks and below will benefit from the wider bands. Wider-range ALs 5, 6 and 7 serve different purposes. They affirm and encourage, telling candidates that best-effort answers are that much closer to best answers.

They address the criticism that T-scores indicting 12-year-olds prematurely pre-judge their academic potential. They silence critics who castigate our esteem-sapping, pressure-cooker system of education.

However, these pupils will find it harder to cross the chasm from one AL to another, as the grade bands span wider mark ranges. A pupil has to go from 45 to 65, to improve from AL6 to AL5.

Another effect of the new AL system is that weakness in one particular subject might not make a big difference to a candidate's PSLE aggregate points score.

After all, between a pupil who scores 45 (AL6) and another who scores 79 (AL4), the 34 per cent difference translates into just two AL aggregate points. Both psychologically and factually, broader-based ALs moderate the effects of poor performance in any particular subject.

In a T-score-free world, the naturally subsisting counter-argument would be that candidates cannot compensate for weakness in one subject with stellar performances in other subjects. Ergo, a candidate whose raw scores of 100, 100, 100 and 74 translate into an eight-point AL aggregate is indistinguishable from an 85, 85, 85, and 85 AL eight-pointer.

Under the T-score system, the first eight-pointer would earn a higher T-score as he would have outperformed his peers in the three subjects in which he scored 100.

The new AL system would treat both the same. By reducing the punitive effects of a low grade in a single subject, the new AL system encourages pupils to aim for balanced, well-rounded performance in all subjects.

In the end, despite the rationalisations about the reforms, all Singaporeans are left with one question. Can policy reform ever address competition and stress meaningfully? Ask any O- or A-level candidate if the thought of her aggregate point score stresses her out. Kids are living, breathing caricatures of their parental models.

If Daddy and Mummy are hard-charging corporate titans competing in the take-no-prisoners world of commerce, can we really blame Junior for having "achievement anxiety" in everything she does?

•The writer is co-founder of a tutorial school and the author of Decoding DSA: The Ultimate Parental Guide To Success In Direct School Admission (2016).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Pressure to scale AL pyramid will persist'. Print Edition | Subscribe