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


About School

The first few weeks of school has just gone by. My 6 year old has officially joined his elder brother in the big boy school. It dawned on me that very soon my little baby would lose his chubby cheeks and potbelly, and his cutesy little feet would balloon into a size 10 like his elder brother’s. I felt the need to smother him with hugs and kisses because very soon, my little baby wouldn’t be so little anymore.

His K2 graduation photo now sits in our living room. He looks handsome in his graduation robe proudly holding his graduation scroll.

However I wasn’t really ecstatic about his year end concert. Seeing him march on stage in his graduation robe with his head held high with his scroll in hand brought a mixed sense of pride and a tinge of sadness. This seemed to mark the end of childhood innocence and the start of grueling years of formal schooling. Yet, I know the choice is mine, whether to jump on the bandwagon.

This year, we paid 60 bucks to watch him on stage dancing to the beat of some funky pop songs from the billboard charts. It was cool but I didn’t get overly excited. The teachers and children had spent the last few weeks of school preparing, practicing the songs , dance moves and speeches. The usual lessons came to a halt and they spent hours practicing and rehearsing.

On the day of the performance, the kids were asked to put on makeup so that they would look ‘better’ on stage. Of course the boys protested indignantly that ‘Boys don’t wear makeup!’.

I would have very much enjoyed a simpler concert, a song or something they had learned in school during the past year. There needn’t be fanciful costumes or props or a grand concert hall but perhaps that wouldn’t be good enough? These days, it’s not uncommon to see schools lavish on year end concerts and I am beginning to wonder over the motivation behind these.

There may be many different views on the purpose of education. Scholars, teachers, and policy makers are still trying to reach a consensus. Some joked that one might have better luck asking ‘What is the meaning of life’.

If the role of schools is indeed to train our children to become lifelong learners who are able to love, work, and act as responsible members of the community, then I wonder how a lavish graduation concert would fit in.

The teachers were visibly stressed out preparing for the big day. It was definitely not easy to get a bunch of preschoolers to cooperate and put up a performance of this scale. I could imagine how unnerving it must had been for the teachers, especially when the audience is made up of demanding monster parents.

Fast forward a couple of months later. My 6 year old is adapting well to his new school. There was no first day of school jitters and no crying. Unlike child birth, the second kid was definitely easier than the first. I am quite sure having an elder brother in the same school made a difference. For a start, he already knew some of his brother’s friends even before joining the school.

And how did we prepare him for Primary 1?

No, we didn’t cram him with worksheets or tuition classes or send him for a crash course in reading. We did make sure he knows his dollar and cents so that he could tackle his adventure in the school canteen. He was so excited on his first day of school because he got to order his own food and handle real money like a big boy.

On the first day, his buddy, a girl from Primary 2, asked him why he doesn’t buy any sweet drinks. He probably gave her a list of reasons why sweet drinks were not good for you. I still couldn’t fathom why the school doesn’t sell mineral water.

On the second day, he was too short to see beyond the first rack of food and couldn’t order any side dishes to add to his rice. If not for the parent volunteers at the canteen, he would have probably ended up eating plain white rice with a few leaves of lettuce. That happened to many of the kids. They were too flustered and it didn’t help that the canteen vendors weren’t very thoughtful in displaying the food they were selling.

On the third day, he was short changed by the canteen vendor. He was too slow to figure out how much change to get back for his bowl of noodle that cost 80 cents. But now he knows better, that it’s okay to ask for your change even if you can’t figure out the exact amount; that adults are not always right and sometime they can be forgetful.

It was a pity that the school field was closed again for construction. His elder brother who is in Primary 6 this year had gotten quite used to it. The field was out of bounds half the time he was there. As a result, the chaos at the canteen during recess time was only to be expected. When the children are deprived of the space to expend their energy (after sitting in the classroom for long stretch of time), trying to maintain order is insane and inane. Thankfully so far, the boys have been able to keep themselves occupied without getting into trouble and I have yet to receive any complaints from their teachers.

Though I am far from satisfied with how things are being run in the school, I realised that school is probably the best place for the boys to get a glimpse of real life.

Managing their expectations, taking things in their stride, dealing with adversity, finding their own solutions for their own problems, learning to be positive and focus on the brighter side of life. These are life skills that even some adults struggle with.

While the school is far from perfect, I think it has provided them the environment to pick up valuable life skills at a young age. So maybe it is not because of the school system, but in spite of the school system that our children will learn to succeed.



On Learning A Second Language

In Singapore, every child going to a public school studies English as a first language.
At the same time, he is required to learn a second language.
This was and remains a national policy, something started by our first Prime Minister almost 50 years ago.

In the beginning, the language policies were controversial and politically explosive.
The Malays and the Tamils feared marginalisation by the Chinese majority.
The Chinese pushed for pre-eminence of Chinese base education.
Mr Lee stayed the course and pushed for English as the first language in all public schools.
The rationale was that English as the language of commerce and the sciences would enable Singaporeans to connect with the international community.
It was a question of survival for an island state with no natural resources.
The value of learning the mother tongue according to Mr Lee was to maintain ethnic identity and traditional values.

Today, the situation has turned.

50 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that parents today would face so much angst over learning of the mother tongue.
English is now the most commonly spoken language on the island.
Even most of the illiterate aunties and uncles know a splattering of Singlish, or the local style of colloquial English.
Most children today I know don’t want to learn their mother tongue.

Learning our mother tongues can be really hard work, especially where Chinese is concerned.
Thousands of unique characters. Thousands of idioms made up of any number of combinations of unrelated characters.
There is only one way. You memorize and then regurgitate during the exams, then you kind of forget everything.
And looking at current Primary school curriculums, I know that learning Chinese has only gotten harder.

My K2 boy brought home his very first tingxie (Chinese Spelling) list.
Frankly, I was appalled because I was expecting 上,下, 左, 右.
But I guess those were too simple.
They would hardly prepare the kids for the demands of Primary school.

Do we really have to do this?
Do we have to make it so painful?
Do we have to test students on Chinese like all the other subjects?

Unlike English, Maths and Science which lay the foundation for higher level learning, you almost don’t have to read a single Chinese book or document after A’level or O’level unless you are taking Chinese as a subject in University.

If you stick to the original motivation for learning Chinese, add another motivation of learning Chinese for opening the windows of opportunities in China.
Or to be able to communicate with the older generation who can’t speak English.
Or with the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from China.

Do we really need to set such high standards for Chinese for our schools where all subjects are taught in English.
Shouldn’t we be spending more time cultivating the children’s interest in the Chinese culture, the history, and the stories?

In discussing Chinese language education, Lee Kuan Yew writes :
‘The greatest value in the teaching and learning of Chinese is in the transmission of the norms
of social or moral behaviour. . . .
It would be a tragedy if we were to miss this and concentrate on second language proficiency nearly equal to the first language’

And it makes me wonder … Are we still teaching and learning our “mother tongues” for the purpose of protecting ethnic identity, a sense of “rootedness” and cultural values or has it became another avenue for standardized testing so that we could separate the wheat from the chaff?