How to View the New PSLE Scoring System Positively, and Transform Your Child’s Learning

Is your child taking the Primary School Leaving Examination in 2021 and beyond? Singapore’s Ministry of Education has held webinars to help parents familiarise themselves with the new PSLE scoring system, and they’ve also created official videos to answer questions that parents have raised:

If you have 10 minutes to spare, it is well worth your time to watch the videos, especially if your child is in the first batch of students who will fall under the new PSLE scoring system.

Your child’s school would also have held a briefing session to reiterate the MOE’s points, and to allay your concerns about the new system. The MOE’s advice to parents is: Don’t be anxious, and don’t feel as if you have to absorb all the new information at once. In due time, you will receive all the necessary information, so that you can make an informed decision regarding your child’s secondary school.

Below, we’ve put together a three-step guide for supporting your child in the new PSLE “AL” system — AL is short for “Achievement Levels.” Remember: it’s not about surviving the PSLE, but about thriving and keeping the spirit of learning alive.

Step 1: Think differently about the PSLE

Local parents have been frustrated by the PSLE for decades, and change has arrived. Will the new PSLE scoring system be better for our kids? That is the intention, as the new system was created to reduce the overemphasis on grades.

Here’s the difference:

  • With the now-defunct PSLE T-score, students’ scores were finely differentiated — students could get an aggregate score/T-score of less than 80 to more than 280, i.e. there were over 200 possible scores that one could receive. Furthermore, the T-scores were norm-referenced; this means that a student’s performance was calculated against the performance of his/her peers. For instance, if a student had obtained a certain raw score, but his/her peers performed better, the student would receive a lower T-score. To be blunt, the T-score showed you where you stood in your cohort, which was demoralising for many students, regardless of the score.
  • With the new PSLE AL system, PSLE scores (the sum of a student’s AL scores for each subject) will range from 4 to 32, which means there are only 29 possible scores that one can receive. (View AL scores and mark ranges.) And unlike the previous scoring system, AL scores only measure a child’s mastery of knowledge and skills. The performance of other students will not affect a student’s AL score.

Problem: You have your heart set on your child entering particular schools or a particular stream.

Solution: Sadly, the PSLE AL system could be more stressful for you. You will be anxious about your child’s performance, the new entry requirements for popular schools, and potentially, increased competition for places if more students are awarded the same scores.

Thankfully, that’s not the only way forward. You can also choose to have faith in the good intentions of the system, be patient with teething issues, and do your part to support the change. Remind yourself that the objective of the PSLE is not to champion top performers while leaving the rest to flounder. Instead, it is a placement exam designed to match students with a curriculum that best suits their learning abilities.

Until schools release more information, you can view the indicative cut-off points for secondary school entry on MOE’s FB page. By mapping your Primary 6 child’s current scores to AL scores, you can estimate what your child’s PSLE score might be, and what options might be open to him/her.

If you have time, get to know more secondary schools apart from the popular ones — it is always better to have a spread of options to consider, and school choice order will take on greater significance from PSLE 2021. Above all, don’t make the PSLE central to your child’s life, and yours. There is so much more to your child’s learning and development. For starters, you can read about the eight parenting roles you can play to help your child find success in life.

Step 2: Keep a healthy perspective on grades

Why are AL bands narrower at the top? Why are the AL6, 7, and 8 bands so wide? Here’s what the MOE has shared with parents:

  • Typically in the PSLE, 50% of P6 students score 75 points or higher, in terms of raw marks, and 50% of students score 74 points and below. 
  • Within the 75–100 mark range, four ALs (AL1-4) were introduced, to avoid the “bunching of results” and “too many balloting cases” during the school application phase.
  • For the lower mark range (below 74), the students are already fairly spread out. Introducing more ALs for these students would not help in posting or matching them to the right course. 
  • Ultimately, the ALs facilitate matching of students to secondary schools and courses. Having too many ALs would again result in a highly differentiated grading system.

Problem: You are worried that your child could fall into a lower grade band just by scoring one mark less.

Solution: Unfortunately, this is an inevitable feature of all grading systems. There will be a boundary, and yes, someone who scores a mark less could fall into a lower grade band, while someone who scores a mark more may get a higher grade. But the MOE has tried to make this less of a concern — it is your child’s overall score that determines his/her eligibility for a course.

What you can do is to work with your child to set goals for improvement, with actionable steps. But be realistic about what can be achieved. One can’t make a 10-point jump overnight, but 1–5 points is less of a stretch, if you know what is required to get the additional points. Or in another common scenario: it could be hard for your child to score an AL1 or 2 in a language that your family doesn’t speak — you could certainly invest in more tutoring if you can afford it, but is it worthwhile in the long run, or can that time be better spent developing other skills?

Take heart that students who qualify for the Express stream will be able to take all subjects at the Express level, even if they have done poorly for one subject. And if students have qualified for the Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) stream, but have a strong subject, they can take that subject at a higher level because of Subject-Based Banding, which will be fully implemented in all secondary schools by 2024.

Step 3: To reduce stress, create a study plan

The PSLE scoring system has changed, but the curriculum remains the same, and the exams won’t be any easier or harder than in previous years. Here’s a good way to introduce the concept of the AL scores to your kids:

  • When we learn something new, after some initial practice, we often find ourselves improving significantly.
  • But as we get better, the improvements happen in smaller increments.
  • The ALs were designed to reflect this reality of learning, and using the AL scores, teachers can gauge if students are ready to access the curriculum at the next level.

Problem: Your child seems to be exhibiting signs of stress when you talk about the PSLE and the new changes.

Solution: Check with your child if he/she is feeling anxious about the PSLE, and what the concerns are.

You might want to ask yourself: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? For instance, children are often told that their best efforts are enough, but they may pick up conflicting messages from their parents’ tone, facial expressions, or gestures.

Do let your child express his/her emotions, and there is no need to jump straight into problem-solving mode. One of our KSP members has offered tips on helping children to cope with exam stress, which you may find useful.

When your child is ready, ask if he/she would like your help to draw up a study plan together. This is where you can teach your child good habits, such as being organised, breaking larger tasks down into smaller parts, and doing consistent work. Read our post to find out what exam savvy parents do differently to help their children prepare for exams.