Pupils with special education needs who are exempted from taking a mother tongue language (MTL) have been - and will be - treated fairly when the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system is implemented.
Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah gave the House this assurance yesterday when explaining why a score will be assigned to them even though they did not take MTL.
She said the correct score for someone who did not take MTL "should actually be zero".
But, she added: "With secondary school posting, it is necessary to see how that child compares with other children. And if you apply it very, very strictly, then given that you didn't take MTL, the correct score should actually be zero, meaning you have the worst possible score.
"And we didn't want to do that. So, to be fair, we have to impute or assign a score."
Currently, pupils exempted from MTL are given a four-subject score by referring to how their peers with similar scores in English, mathematics and science performed.
In the new system, which takes effect in 2021, each Standard-level PSLE subject is scored using eight bands known as Achievement Levels (AL), with AL1 being the best.
Foundation-level subjects - a subset of what is covered at the Standard level for those weaker in the subject - will be pegged to AL6 to AL8 of the Standard-level subjects.
The Education Ministry has said that in the new system, pupils exempted from MTL will be assigned an MTL score between AL6 and AL8 so that they can have a PSLE score of four subjects for their Secondary 1 posting.
Replying to Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC), who had asked about the underlying principles of the practice, Ms Indranee said the new AL scoring system is based on the pupil's level of attainment.
"However, when it comes to secondary school posting, the student still needs to use his PSLE score to compete with other students to be admitted into a school of his choice. Our treatment of students exempted from MTL is aligned with these principles.''
Parents have expressed concern about the method and an online petition to change it was launched last month. Many who signed felt it is pegged too low compared with the Standard-level subjects.
Ms Indranee pointed out that receiving AL6 for the fourth subject "doesn't automatically disqualify a student from accessing a particular course or his first-choice secondary school".
For example, a pupil with two AL5s and two AL6s would score 22, which makes him eligible for the Express stream, she said.
Simulations using the most recent PSLE results, she added, also show a similar proportion of MTL-exempt pupils with special education needs would qualify for the Express course under both the new and old scoring systems.
Holding choice patterns constant, 60 per cent of pupils in this group would also be able to secure their first-choice secondary school.
Elaborating on the rationale for the assigned MTL scores, she said about 70 per cent of pupils with special education needs in mainstream schools take MTL at PSLE. Another 90 per cent of returning Singaporeans do it.
On average, about 4.5 per cent of pupils are exempted from MTL.
She said it would be difficult to justify to those taking Foundation MTL "why another student who did not sit the exam could be assigned a higher score".
Ms Indranee also highlighted other pathways to secondary schools, like the Direct School Admission route, which more pupils - including those with special education needs - are taking up.