“New” PSLE Education Scoring System: Does it Change Anything?

The Singapore ‘government’ introduced the ‘new’ PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) scoring system yesterday and claimed that it is aimed at “moving away from an over-emphasis on academic results”. Is it true?

In the chart below, check out the old grading system on the left and the ‘new’ one on the right (to be implemented in 2021).

Under the old grading system, the grades were called, well, ‘Grades’. Under the ‘new’ system, they would be called, ‘Achievement Levels’. Old wine in a new bottle.

More importantly, check out the marks required in each grade/level.

The ‘new’ system would now make it even more difficult for you/your child to score a higher grade/level.

Under the old system, a score of 75 will give you an A. But under the ‘new’ system, you will only get a grade 4 (two levels down).

Also, under the old system, a score of 60 will give you a B. But under the ‘new’ system, you will only get a grade 6 (three levels down).

But with this change, it would mean that students will have greater difficulty scoring higher grades.

Take for example my grades – I scored A*, A, A and B which in numerical terms would be 1*, 1, 1 and 2. But under the ‘new’ scoring system, I would instead get 1, 4, 4 and 6 (or A*, C, C and E in alphabetical terms). You can immediately see the difference.

Under the old scoring system, the higher grades would give students more confidence. But under the ‘new’ system, the lower grades/levels is going to hit the morale of the students.

On top of that, why did the MOE decide to change the alphabetical grades into “Achievement Levels” instead? Even under the ‘O’ Levels, students are awarded alphabetical grades as well. Is the ‘government’ trying to mask the change in mark ranges by discontinuing the use of alphabetical grade levels, in the hope that Singaporeans would be made confused, and so that no one would notice this change?

So the question is, does the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system really “move away from an over-emphasis on academic results”? Or does it actually put more focus on academic results with the more stringent scoring system, and put more stress on our children?

The Ministry of Education (MOE) claimed that, “The current T-score system differentiates students very finely,” and that it wants to change that. But instead, the ‘government’ turns around and decided to differentiate the Achievement Levels even more finely than the previous Grade levels – why didn’t the ‘government’ talk about this in their press releases?

In other words, the ‘government’ seems to be thinking that since it cannot differentiate the T-score finely, it has to find a way to still be able to differentiate finely, and therefore it turned to the Achievement Levels to do so instead – this way, it can still distinct the higher scorers and move them into the ‘top’ schools (it looks like this is the intent since the lower scores are now more compressed together).

Doesn’t this still stress our children? Now instead of stressing over T-scores, they have to stress over getting higher grades to get higher Achievement Levels – still as stressful as today!

Well, be careful what you wish for. The ‘government’ already had an agenda and they were just making use of the grievances of Singaporeans to further refine the system to allow them to distill students even more elaborately into academic tiers and you fell for it.

If the ‘government’ would state matter-of-factly that yes, they wanted to refine the system further to distinct students according to their academic abilities, then I cannot fault the ‘government’ for introducing this ‘new’ system. But instead the ‘government’ claimed that it is to “move away from an over-emphasis on academic results”, which is clearly not the case. If so, can you trust that the changes made to the PSLE scoring system would lessen the burden for you or your child?

Now take a look at the PSLE scores and the cut-off points for each stream in the chart below. The cut-off points for 2015 are on the left and the cut-off points based on the ‘new’ scoring system, on the right.

The numbers are different but the segmentation is the same, isn’t it? You still have to get an overall score just like now, and then you still get streamed into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical), just like now. Then, what is the difference?

You still have to get as best a score as you can to enter as best a stream. And the ‘top’ schools will certainly still try to keep their cut-off points high to keep taking those with the best scores, so even if a student gets 20 points and can go to an Express stream, the likelihood is that the student will not be able to go to a ‘top’ school, because the ‘top’ schools will most likely only take those with 4 or 5 points – so still, not every school will be a good school (the government’s rhetoric). They will still be classed differently. I do not see the ‘top’ schools willing to do any differently, unless it comes from a government policy directive but it is clear that many of the policymakers who come from these ‘top’ schools would be unwilling to do so.

What will happen then? That means that when students choose and rank the secondary schools that they want to be posted to, they would still have to know the rough cut-off points of these schools – just like now, so that they can choose accordingly, which otherwise they would not get to go to a school listed in their choice. What is the difference from what is happening now?

Then isn’t this exactly like the ‘O’ Level examinations? All secondary students who score 20 points and above in the ‘O’ Levels qualify to go to a junior college – just like how primary school students who score 20 points and above in the PSLE would qualify to go the Express steam in a secondary school. And then, the ‘top’ junior colleges have high cut-off points. For example, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution both have cut-off points of 4 points (as shown in the chart below). Similarly, will ‘top’ secondary schools then have high cut-off points of 4 points as well? And like the ‘O’ Levels, will they be able to even reduce their points further to 3 points for the PSLE scores, by taking in students with relevant Co-Curricular Activities which could cut off another point or two?

How does this make every school a good school?

If so, the ‘government’ aren’t really changing the PSLE system, are they? They are just replacing the PSLE scoring format with the ‘O’ Levels scoring format. Backend, the technical aspects work all the same, under the old or ‘new’ system.

How does this remove the excessive focus on academic results? It still puts excessive focus on academic results, doesn’t it?

Do you remember how the ‘government’ said that it would remove the rankings of junior colleges in 2004 because it also said that it wanted to move away from an over-emphasis on academic results? Today, we still have the rankings. Today, we still have an excessive focus on academic results. Nothing has changed.

So what should you expect to change with the ‘new’ PSLE scoring system? Nothing.

In fact, if you look at it, what the ‘government’ has really done is to entrench the academic segregation by pulling it backwards into the earlier years of education. Already, there is a sense that students who go to the Express stream are more likely to enter junior colleges, and then to university and later on to earn higher pay. Last year, 66% of the PSLE cohort entered the Express stream. About 30% of each PSLE cohort go on to a junior college and a similar 30% go to local public universities. Replies in parliament already show how there are very few token polytechnic students who go on to university.

Also, the salaries of university students are de facto pegged to Employment passes while that of polytechnic students are pegged to S Passes which therefore institutionalises the wage differences of the different academic tiers into their wage classes – and which explains the large wage gap among the different academic levels. But by now paralleling the PSLE scoring system with that of the ‘O’ Levels, it looks even clearer the distillation system that the ‘government’ wants to create to demarcate Singaporeans of differing academic levels right from young.

But such a refined distillation system to segregate Singaporeans from young cannot surely be a healthy system, which later on would have social and psychological consequences – and from anecdotal evidence, shows that those in the higher academic levels are likely to view themselves in more self enhanced (proud) ways while those at the lower levels would face self esteem issues and insecurities, which again research in inequality affirm, in how Singapore’s highest inequality among the developed countries have therefore produced a people who are more likely to see themselves in self enhanced (and self-centred) ways and high inequality also produces more mental health issues among the populace.

Question is, why does the ‘government’ still want to protect an elitist system and refine the ‘scoring’ system to further institutionalise such a system? The rhetoric that the ‘government’ says, to claim that it wants every school to be a good school, is then just face value and means nothing, isn’t it?

Finally, do you remember the ‘enhancements’ that the ‘government’ made to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) pension fund last year? Those changes work the same way as the ‘enhancements’ to the PSLE scoring system.

For the CPF, the ‘government’ changed the name for the CPF Minimum Sum to the Full Retirement Sum and made it look like it is a brand new thing. But it is not – the Full Retirement Sum is the CPF Minimum Sum, but just in a different name. Indeed, a “brand” new thing.

Also, the ‘government’ also came out with new names – the ‘Basic’ Retirement Sum and the ‘Enhanced’ Retirement Sum (which is really just ‘half’ the CPF Minimum Sum and ‘twice’ the CPF Minimum Sum, respectively).

But what changes? Nothing fundamentally. Except for the elderly above 65 who would have slight improvements, the majority of Singaporeans would still not be able to have adequate retirement savings – because the general CPF interest rates and wages have still not been increased, and so the CPF still cannot grow faster, and Singaporeans still cannot have enough to retire on.

What changed? Nothing.

How are the changes to the PSLE ‘scoring’ system similar to that of the CPF? For the PSLE, the ‘government’ changed the Grade levels (A*, A, B, C, D,E and U) to Achievement Levels (1 – 8).

But students will still be streamed into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) at similar marks as today. ‘Top’ schools would most likely still take in students with the highest scores.

Worse still, students would now get lower grades/levels than under the old system and would face lower morale.

So what changed? Nothing. In fact, it got worse.

Nothing Changes with the ‘New’ PSLE Scoring System

When Singaporeans asked the ‘government’ to change the PSLE system, parents said that it was because their children were becoming too stressed and needed reprieve. Instead, the ‘government’ said that it would only change the ‘scoring’ system without fundamentally changing the primary school education system or the transition into secondary school, which should be what should be done to reduce stress levels at the root causes. So, alright, Singaporeans thought that changing the PSLE ‘scoring’ system might actually have the effect of reducing stress. But from the looks of it, it does not seem likely. Stress looks set to continue.

I hope I am wrong about this. MOE said that, “The PSLE changes are significant, so we will not rush the implementation.” It also said that, “The next few years will be used to test the new exam scoring and posting systems thoroughly,” so that as Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said, that the ‘government’ can make “Every school … a good school, a good fit for the child if it best matches the students’ needs.”

Honestly, I am not keeping my hopes high. I have just become too disappointed and jaded with how the Singapore ‘government’ works that I no longer really trust the ‘government’ to do what it propounds to do, but only on the surface.

I wonder all the time why this ‘government’ is not bold enough to make the fundamental changes required to kickstart our education system again, and our economy for that matter. But for whatever reasons, the ‘government’ does not dare to make major reforms and therefore we see ‘enhancements’ made which are like plasters placed over cracks, but without healing the cracks mean that the bottle will still break at some point anyway when it cannot handle the stress.

But how can the ‘government’ keep coming out with ‘solutions’ or ‘enhancements’ to problems when these are nothing more than repackaged (or worse still, just renamed) initiatives which do not fundamentally address the problems at hand? Then, aren’t we just kicking the problems down the road? Who does the ‘government’ expect to pick up the pieces later on, except for a government which would have a harder time trying to reverse bad decisions and which might just carry on making ‘enhancements’ (as is happening today) because the problems would be too deep to resolve by then or no one simply has the wits to do it?

Of course, if the question is to maintain an elitist and segregated structure, why change a system that works for the political elites, but except to modify it on the surface to appease those who are ruled and who are happy to have wool pulled over their eyes?


What are the solutions, you ask?

As I have written before, if you truly want to make every school a good school, you have to reduce class sizes (Singapore has the highest class sizes among the developed countries) and the administrative workload of teachers so that they will have the time (and energy) to focus on the development of each and every child. Teachers would also be less stressed and less likely to lose their temper with their students which we are increasingly hearing reports of. The syllabuses should also be reduced, and then school hours reduced as well, which together with reduced class sizes, will allow teachers to have the room to not only develop the potential of each child to their fullest but to allow them to do more creative activities to develop children’s critical thinking skills. Once this is done, where teachers could bring out the potential of each child more effectively, you would see students who are even more academically-effective (and all-rounded as well) and where schools would become more levelled academically and all schools would gradually become truly good schools. Finally, the government needs to ensure that education is free (or at least heavily subsidised – Singaporeans pay one of the highest childcare and university fees in the world today and Singaporeans receive very low scholarships compared to their foreign counterparts in local public universities), so that all children have equal access to higher education and will not be hindered by their lack of income or resources (where Singapore has one of the most unequal resource distribution in schools among the developed countries). Otherwise, the government should equalise wages so that the parents of these children would be able to earn higher wages to support their children through school – as it is, Singapore has the highest rich-poor gap and highest wage gap between the different education levels among the developed countries. Enrollment into higher education has to also be increased and more universities have to be built, so that our children would not be denied a chance simply because they cannot get a place in a local public university (Singapore’s university enrollment is considered low as compared to other developed countries). And if the government is sincere about upscaling the skills of polytechnic and ITE (vocational education) students to prop them up, then it has to institutionalise wage increases to again, level up the wages of polytechnic and ITE students so that they would be able to earn higher wages (and higher longer term wages) and not be trapped in poverty. It is estimated today that 30% of Singaporeans live in poverty – 30% of Singaporeans earn less than S$2,000 and the starting pay of polytechnic students is S$2,000. It is even lower for ITE students, at about S$1,200 to S$1,300.

But as it is, I do not see the ‘government’ do any of these. It removed the rankings of secondary schools and junior colleges only for them to make a comeback and to continue to stress our children. It changed the PSLE ‘scoring’ system but in essence, nothing changes. So fundamentally, the system does not really change to alleviate the stresses that our children face, and which they will continue to face.

Moreover, the solutions that I outlined above would make every school truly a good school, when there is greater equality in the accessibility to education and distribution of resources, but would the ‘government’ want to do that when this would threaten the very structure that the political elites have built for themselves?

I do not see the ‘government’ have the determination or will to do otherwise, but to keep with a system that produces enough workers for its low-cost foreign investment-fuelled rental market, and the political elites’ profit-motive.

Anyway why do I bother to speak up when the ‘government’ will keep persecuting me and Singaporeans would not even bat an eyelid. So, it really doesn’t matter now.

I am just writing because I thought that you might want to know. Just maybe. For you or your children’s sake, perhaps?

This article was first published over at the Heart Truths blog of Roy Ngerng on 14 July 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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