Will Changes In PSLE T-Score Changes Anything ?

There has been much anxiety over MOE’s announcement that the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will be replaced with wider scoring bands from 2021. The change hopes to reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers. The Direct Scheme Admission (DSA) will also be reviewed to realign it with its original intent, ie to recognise achievements and talents in other areas such as arts and sports instead of general academic ability.

Concerned parents now wonder how they should change their strategies to tackle the high-stakes PSLE examinations in order to secure places for kids in highly sought after secondary schools. Should they start grooming their kids at 3 years old to become the next Tiger Wood or should they continue to throw in money into the billion dollar tuition industry.

Let’s take a look at whether MOE’s past policies had been successful in achieving its desired outcome of changing behaviours.

In 2005, MOE implemented its Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) initiative to shift focus from quantity to quality, and from efficiency to choice in learning with the objective for educators to teach better, engage students and prepare them for life, rather than to teach for tests and examinations.

Ex-Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat in 2015 said that

Since the introduction of the “teach less, learn more” policy in 2005, up to 20 per cent of content has been reduced from syllabuses implemented across the primary, secondary and pre-university levels. There has also been a shift away from rote learning, as policymakers respond to concerns over the amount of content being taught in the schools and the cramming that students do before examinations.

So how has TLLM affected our children?

My elder boy is sitting for PSLE this year and his younger brother will be affected by the new PSLE banding system in 2021. He started Primary 1 this year and came home everyday with more homework than his elder brother did 5 years ago. I had to write to the teacher to find out whether it was a case where he couldn’t finish his work in class or has the syllabus been changed and the workload increased. The teacher assured me that he was coping well.

If teaching less means reducing the content in textbooks, then yes. My sons’ school no longer uses textbooks for English and Science. They plunge straight into doing worksheets. During Parent Teacher Meeting (PTM) the explanation given was that the focus now is on application of concepts.

Aren’t new concepts grasped through reading? Have their Science textbooks become irrelevant? If so, why are they still in the booklist? It appears to me that the school no longer value and encourage reading. It is easier to just teach students to answer questions because if you go through enough worksheets, you can probably score well for exams.

Is that how we teach less and learn more? Is that the desired outcome that MOE hopes to achieve or somewhere along the line, execution has failed.

Pasi Sahlberg, in his book,Finnish Lessons, What can the world learn from Educational change in Finland? wrote that the Teach Less Learn More and Test Less Learn More in the Finnish education system is a paradox. He wrote,

The Finnish experience challenges the typical logic of educational development that tries to fix lower-than-expected student performance by increasing the length of education and duration of teaching.

There appears to be very little correlation between intended instruction hours in public education and resulting student performance, as assessed by PISA study.

Finnish teachers on average teach about 4 lessons daily, which work out to be 3 hours of teaching daily (as compared to 5 hours in American schools). This leave them time to plan, learn and reflect on teaching with other teachers..

Finnish educators don’t believe that doing more homework necessarily leads to better learning especially if pupils are working on routine and intellectually unchallenging drills, as school homework assignments unfortunately often are.

It has been a decade since MOE implemented TLLM and now we are a nation of anxious parents, stressed out kids with a billion dollar tuition industry. So will scrapping PSLE T-score reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and encourage students to focus on their own learning rather than competing to do better than their peers.

To these changes, my 12 year old responded matter-of-factly that parents will still be as kiasu (competitive), students will still be as stressed out and teachers will still drill them with more worksheets. There will still be Continual Assessment (CA), Semestral Assessment (SA) and PSLE, everyone will still be studying to score well for tests and examinations. Every year, students in his school are grouped into different classes according to test and exam scores.

He has gone through the last 6 years without tuition or enrichment classes except for Chinese. He started Chinese tuition last year when he was half way through Primary 5 after missing the subject for a whole year when we were living overseas. Apart from completing his homework from school, he spends most of his free time reading and doing the things he like, not worksheets or assessment books. Even so, it was painfully clear that good scores for tests and exams are important because it determines which class he goes to and they are told often enough in school which are the best class and which are the best students. Getting good grades and doing well for PSLE is a mindset that is not just ingrained in parents and students but educators. It is what drives everyone’s behavior and creates the race-to-the-top mentality.

Ability-driven education is believed to be a key feature behind Singapore’s success in education. Students are segregated based on perceived ability or achievement. Since the 1970s we have had streaming but later replaced by subject banding that we are still using today. We have Gifted Education Programs (GEP) where different curriculum and teaching methods are used for exceptionally bright students. Our system requires students to be frequently tested so that they can be grouped and sorted according to their abilities. Tests, exams and assessments form the backbone of our education system.

But what is wrong with assessment and testing?

There are 2 main types of assessments, Formative assessment and Summative assessment.

Formative assessment, is a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment. It typically involves qualitative feedback (rather than scores) for both student and teacher that focuses on the details of content and performance.

Summative assessment refers to the assessment of participants where the focus is on the outcome of a program. This contrasts with formative assessment which summarizes the participants’ development at a particular time.

I believe what we have in Singapore are summative assessments. PSLE takes place at the end of Primary school. It assess what has been learned and how well it was learned. Grades are given and students are sorted based on their grades into different secondary schools.

In his book, Pasi Sahlberg wrote,

Testing itself is not a bad thing. Problems arise when they become higher in stakes and include sanctions to teachers or schools as a consequence of poor performance.
Teachers tend to redesign their teaching according to these tests, give higher priority to those subjects that are tested, and adjust teaching methods to drilling and memorizing information rather than understanding knowledge.

Appropriate testing helps identify areas needing improvement but high-stakes standardized examination, such as PSLE, prevent real learning and has led our teachers to focus their attention on helping students do well for test, at the expense of developing every student’s full potential.

Our ability-driven education system is achieved through tracking, sorting, streaming, or ability grouping. Initially touted as a way of tailoring instruction to the diverse needs of students, research has shown that tracking has instead limited the more beneficial opportunities to high-track students and denying these benefits to lower-tracked students. It has widened the achievement gap between the high and low achievers over the years and led to inequitable educational outcomes.

The Finnish education system has abolished streaming in the mid-a980s and made learning expectations the same for all students. This meant that all pupils, regardless of their abilities or interests, studied in the same classes. PISA survey showed that Finland had the smallest performance variations between schools in reading, mathematics, and sciences ie. smallest achievement gap between low and high achievers.

Our education system based on meritocracy has worked for us for the last 50 years. It has created a gap between the high achievers and the low achievers and a widened income gap. The wealthier families can now give their children an edge through tuition and enrichment, leading to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) no longer being ‘the level playing field’ that they once were. And this will perpetuate in a system which focuses on standardized tests and high-stakes examinations.

Our ex-Education Minister Mr Heng said that it will take some time for parents to change the mindset that certain school will help their child to succeed later. And current Education Minister Mr Ng noted that ‘there is a deeply ingrained mindset that the PSLE is a very high-stakes exam. Many perceive that a child’s PSLE T-score at the age of 12 determines his or her success and pathway in life.’

A good culture does not happen by chance. Neither will mindsets change over time.

Yes we need a mindset change, both parents and educators. More importantly we need policymakers to create structures and policies to enable the parents and educators to think and do things differently. We need them to create a system that can help to bridge the social gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Meanwhile, it is not impossible but it takes iron will and courage for parents to move away from the herd mentality, to opt out from the race and give their children the space and time to find their true passion and the kind of childhood they deserve.


Here are some thoughts on education and parenting by some mother bloggers
Lyn Lee’s The Singapore ‘Education Condition’
Michelle Choy’s No More T-Score. No what?
June Yong’s Parenting from a place of enough


A Birthday Party At The Pool

Malcolm turned 12 and we had a pool party celebration for him last weekend. We had 10 boys over and we basically let them run wild.

Through the years of party planning, I learned that I usually risk losing my voice and sanity trying to have the kids do my bidding. A handheld speaker would definitely come in handy but it really needn’t be too complicated. The kids are usually happy just having their friends around to play with.

This time round we brought down our pool noodles, a ball and a frisbee and the boys played for 3 hours while I sat under the shade, with music plugged into my ears, chilling out. It was a pity that his younger brother fell sick and couldn’t join them at the pool but thankfully my husband was around to help babysit him.

I found this old photo of Malcolm looking all babyish at 4 years old.

12 years old is special for many reasons. In this country, there is the high stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) which drives some parents to go on a year of unpaid leave so that they could stay home to coach their children. It’s the year where they would bid goodbyes to their friends whom they have spent their last 6 years with in Primary school. It’s also the year where theme birthday parties are no longer cool and colourful party decoration are for babies. And for me, I suspect it would be the last time I would be needed at his birthday parties. And that kind of motivated me to throw a birthday party for him.

The party was in the afternoon so I prepared some light snacks for tea. I ordered 40 mini burgers and baked a quiche. Gosh, they could really eat and there’s no such thing as too much food!

I got him to choose some balloons of his favourite colours but soon realised that tween boys didn’t really care much about balloons, they were more interested in releasing the helium filled balloons to see how high they would go!

So my son wanted a cake that looks like a cake, not a car nor a plane or some fanciful designed theme cakes. I heaved a sign of relief that I didn’t have to work with fondant this time. At 12 years old, he had outgrown theme cake and wanted something that looked ‘edible’. It happened to be one of his buddy’s birthday that day and so I baked 2 ‘serious looking’ (or boring looking) cakes, one for each birthday boy. An oreo cheesecake and a 2 layer chocolate cake.

I got the oreo cheesecake recipe from a friend and the chocolate cake from here. The chocolate buttercream was really easy to work with but as usual I cut back on the amount of sugar. I used slightly less than 2 cups instead of the 3 that the recipe called for. Even so, my boys thought it was sweet. Can’t imagine if I were to go ahead with the recommended amount.

Most of the boys had 2 servings of the cakes, one of each flavour and they seemed to prefer the cheesecake. One of his friends even requested to pack some home. I was delighted that the cakes turned out so well. All these years of trial and error making birthday cakes sure did something good to my baking skills. The kind of things mothers do. I have surprised myself many times during the last decade.

It was a simple birthday party, exactly what he had asked for, with the boys getting in and out of pool, eating, swimming and running around. I can’t think of a party simpler than this and I hope it would be one of those things that he would one day look back with fond memories.



Running A Half Marathon And Beating Myself

I completed a half marathon 2 weeks ago. It was my second time doing a 21 km run. The first was about 2 years ago, during the Army Half Marathon. I did a couple more long runs that year, but nothing as long as a half marathon. 2014 was a good year mainly because of all the running distances I had clocked. Prior to that year, I have never participated in any race, I reasoned ‘Why pay to suffer?!’ I was contented with my own-pace-own-time jog.

Then I found out about the Singtel Cancer Run, a 15km run where all monies collected go to the Singapore Cancer Society. I thought that it was at least something meaningful, like killing 2 birds with 1 stone, getting a good workout while doing charity and that was when I signed up for my first run.

After a year of good runs, I ended 2014 with a torn meniscus and strained ligaments. My knee were swollen and I could barely walk. I couldn’t swim, because I couldn’t kick with my injured knee and any form of exercise was out for me, even brisk walk. Rest was all I could do.

I was advised by my orthopedician to go for regular physiotherapy to strengthen my muscles so as to regain mobility of my knee. I went for the first few times but decided to stop as it was too time consuming. It didn’t make sense for me to travel an hour just for 15 minutes of exercise. Due to the injury, my left knee was unstable and could ‘give way’ when I strained it, eg while going down a flight of stairs.

It was good to rest! I could indulge in a chocolate cake without having to think about burning off the calories! I could sleep in and not struggle with ‘I should have gone for a run’. I realised that the should-haves created unnecessary stress in life.

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With rest, the swell on my knee went down, I could walk better but I still couldn’t fully extend and bend my knee and I was still limping. I read that I could do some exercise to strengthen my quads so as to help stabilize my knee. My thoughts immediately went to my bike that had been sitting pretty in the living room.

I started off with my son’s bike, which was smaller in size, before going onto my own bike. I had to lower the seat so that I didn’t have to extend my legs too much and I couldn’t go fast. Still, I was exhilarated that I could finally ride my bike!

I thought to myself ‘Nobody could tell I was limping, It was good to feel brand new, It was good to feel strong’. I realised that it was easy to take all these for granted.

In the beginning, I got aches and pains after each ride. My knee swells on occasions when I cycle too hard.

My cycling routine wasn’t intensive. I cycled about 2-3 times a week and usually do about 20-30km. It took me about an hour or so and it fits right into my mornings while my younger one was in preschool.

Cycling, unlike running, is low-impact but has several aerobic benefits. You can ride uphill in a low gear to build strength. You can do short sprints to spike your heart-rate and build speed. You can also go for a longer, steady ride to build endurance.

After 4 months of regular cycling, I finally attempted a 9 km run outdoor. I was thrilled that I could complete the run. It sort of gave me confidence for the upcoming 15km race for Singtel Cancer Run in July last year (but was eventually cancelled due to haze).

Then early this year, my husband took the liberty to sign me up for a half marathon.

With my younger boy joining his brother in Primary school this year. I had a good 6 hours to myself in the morning. I could run and cycle or do both!

I didn’t push myself very hard as I was careful not to worsen my injury. I tried to do at least a 10 km run every week and keep to cycling during the week. Once a while when I was too tired to do both, I rollerblade. I found out that excessive pushing of the rollerblades caused the pain on my knee to return and I was not as mobile. I was happy to put on my rollerblades but it was no longer like before. (I still hope that it could get better)

Apart from cycling, I attend Pilate class once a week. The class helped to strengthen my core muscles and force me to stretch muscles which I wasn’t very disciplined to do.

Cycling at a moderate pace had helped to strengthen my quads, build up my aerobic fitness and improve my endurance. Being able to run a 21 km was the best testimonial.

I enjoyed the run better this time. Apart from stopping at drink stations to grab drinks and taking a few pictures, I basically ran all the way. My hamstrings hurt during the last 2 km but I could continue even without any heat rub! (unlike the last run)

I came in with a better timing and was in a better state than 2 years back when I did the same distance. However I was famished and gobbled up 2 bananas as soon as I crossed the finishing line!

I didn’t collapse in a pile when I reached home. I showered before heading out for Tim Sum and spent the afternoon shopping! I remember sleeping the afternoon away after the previous half marathon. My fitness had definitely improved. And I am planning to sign up for more runs to motivate myself to continue this fitness regime.

Though my ranking at 500 plus amongst 3000 over female runners wasn’t something to shout about, I am happy that I have beaten myself, in terms of timing and overcoming an injury.

And that befits what we want to teach our children, that ‘the only person they should try to be better than is the person they were yesterday’. (Of course, I had my husband to thank again. He was once again my guardian angel throughout the run)


This entry was posted in Fitness.