What a father of three makes of all the PSLE changes

The Education Ministry made a few significant changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) earlier today (July 13).

At the top of the list, the PSLE is moving away from a discrete T-score point system to one that grades pupils by bands.The best score one can get out of four subjects is four points; the worst is 32.

The T-score shows how a pupil has performed relative to his peers. A pupil may do well in a subject, but if most of his peers perform better than him, he will get a lower T-score.

In the new system there will no longer be a bell curve. pupils will be graded according to their own ability. If they score, say, 90 out of 100, they will get the top score of A1. So it is technically possible for everyone across the cohort to score all A1s, although the probability is close to zero.

My daughter will be in the last batch taking PSLE the current system. My two younger sons will be under the new regime, from 2021, so they will be directly affected.


Here's my take on the bad and the good of the changes in store.

1. Stress levels to remain high

Stress levels are not likely to fall with this change.

In fact, it might get even worse.

To be certain, the intention is clear: Moving the scoring system to bands is aimed at diffusing the sharp focus on getting a specific score to meet a cut-off for a school.

Currently, if a school has a cut-off at 255 it means that your child will not be able to get in if he gets 254.

It's an unfair system: It's just one point but it's the one point that makes all the difference.

So moving to a wider band means that once pupils make a certain cut, they are grouped as roughly to be of the same ability. This is a fairer system compared with the current one.

At the same time, removing the bell curve means that anyone, if he or she is hard-working enough, can get the top grading for that subject.

"The new scoring system will also better reflect a pupil's level of achievement by grading each pupil on their individual performance, regardless of how the cohort performs," said MOE.

This will ensure also that there is still competition while keeping meritocracy in the system.

But it also means that stress levels will remain high.

To get into the top band, your child needs to score 9 out of 10, or a near-perfect score.

The margin for error is razor thin.

Without the bell curve, getting four points will now likely be the new goal for many parents if they want their kids to get into the top tier of schools.

This means that parents are unlikely to give up tuition or hot-housing them in PSLE "preparation camps".

Also, for many children, the PSLE has been made out to be a huge deal and the result remains the same: Pressure and stress levels will remain elevated.

2. Weak subjects made more glaring

The other problematic thing about the change - for my kids at least - is that there is greater emphasis on becoming a more well-rounded pupil.

This is, of course, to be encouraged. No one wants pupils only able to do one or two things well.

But for "banana" kids like mine, who can barely put two Mandarin sentences together at home, the struggle to get through Chinese has become that much harder. It's not enough to "get by" with a decent grade, the onus is now to get a good score for Chinese or risk undoing the hard work put into his other subjects.

Take the theoretical example of a pupil who excels in everything, except Chinese.

He may score A1s for two subjects and A2 for his third but gets, say, an A5 for Chinese. His final score will be nine.

That is equivalent to a pupil scoring maybe three A2s and an A3.

It matters little if he or she scores full marks for the rest; if he or she does badly for Chinese, the score will be altered dramatically.

It is a much harsher system compared with the O levels.

Pupils typically take more than six subjects which means they can opt to use the best scores for the five or six subjects when applying for a junior college or a polytechnic.

So technically, they can afford to be weak in one and still expect to get into their choice of schools or courses, provided they have done well in the rest.

In PSLE, you have no choice but to ensure that you do equally well in all subjects.

3. Choices matter

So what's a parent of three like me to do about these changes?

Nothing actually. That's because my wife and I have decided that we will, to the best of our abilities, steer clear of the rat race to the top.

We started with our daughter. She was eligible to go to the top girls school here but we chose a Catholic school because we feel its important for her to get religious values in her education as well.

We have decided that we will not have tuition even though she is not doing super in her Chinese.

After all, if there is no struggle to learn in school, what is the point of learning at all?

She takes piano classes and swimming lessons but that's about it.

The rest of the time, she's doing her homework or figuring out how Iron Man and Captain America are going to win the day with her four year-old brother.

This will apply to my sons as well, hopefully.

Of course, this may all change when she is at Primary 6, which is four years from now. I can't guarantee that I will not morph into a crazy, "kiasu" parent if she starts doing badly in her exams.

But the principle remains: I want her to be happy and to let her lead when it comes to her education.

I would like her and my sons, later on, learn to be responsible for their choices and face the consequences.

We will, of course, as parents guide or nudge them into making the correct decisions. And if it comes to the stage where they start to to fail tests and exams, we will intervene.

But up to that point, I think it's okay if they don't score perfect or near-perfect scores.

I don't expect them to be perfect because I certainly am not.