PSLE 2021: KiasuParents Speak Out

By now, many parents in Singapore would have familiarised themselves with the changes to 2021’s Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), which were announced by Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) on July 13. Public reactions have been mixed: A doomsday scenario of parents grooming “four-pointers” for 2021 has already emerged, while others either welcome the change, or prefer to watch and wait before passing judgment on the new assessment system. For those who need a refresher, here’s a recap of key points that have been dissected in the news, on blogs, as well as on our KiasuParents forum:

A new scoring system. Under the current system, students receive a score for their four PSLE subjects; it is known as the T-score, short for Transformed Score. T-Scores are adjusted according to how other students in a cohort have performed, and a better performance by others will negatively affect one’s T-Score. The score determines the secondary schools that each student is eligible for, but from 2021, students will receive banded grades ranging from Achievement Level 1 (90 –100) to Achievement Level 8 (less than 20). Full details are here.

A clearer focus for students. In describing the existing T-score system, Acting Minister for Education Ng Chee Meng said it “stacks… kids from 1 to 10,000; it is not so much what you’ve achieved, but what you’ve achieved relative to your friends.” In his interview on May 26 on the current affairs programme Talking Point, Ng highlighted two advantages of the new system. First, children would “know exactly” what they had achieved by the end of Primary 6, “not relative to somebody, but according to a professionally set exam.” Second, it would address the main drawback of the current scoring system—its precision, which results in fine distinctions that are not “educationally meaningful.”

Achievement Levels, or ALs, aim to provide balance. According to the MOE, about half the cohort is expected to score AL4 (above 75 marks) or better for each subject every year, which is why the upper band of ALs are narrower compared to the lower bands. More on this here.

Choice order may take on greater significance. Under the existing system, pupils select six secondary schools that they are keen to enter, in order of preference, and they are posted to their most preferred school if they are eligible for entry. When two or more pupils with the same grades vie for a place in a school, a computerised ballot is used to decide which pupil gets the place, and this does not take into consideration where the school is placed in the pupils’ selection lists. In the new system, the pupil who places the school in a higher slot on his or her list will have the advantage in the event of a tie. Full details are here.

Special Assistance Plan (SAP) and affiliation advantages to remain. Details for Higher Chinese Language students can be found here. For school affiliations, the MOE has said this is subject to review as well as input from schools. More details are available here.

Simulated cut-off points (COPs) will be provided. It is unclear how these simulated points will be derived for the first batch of PSLE students under the new system in 2021, but the MOE has stated it will provide simulated cut-off points for each school as a reference for students and parents. Read more FAQs here

What does the KiasuParent community have to say about these developments? Much of the PSLE 2021 chatter is taking place in this thread, and below, we feature some pertinent insights:

Questions:
“I wonder how the first batch of children in 2021 will know what is the COP for each of the schools, if there is no precedent result. So, it becomes a guessing game?” — allnamestaken

“Since kids won’t be gauged relative to one another, will we see a return to killer papers? Easy papers will mean a deluge of four-pointers.” — hquek

“If they are using a raw score instead of a bell curve, how will they ensure all Mother Tongue papers are equally difficult or easy?” — zulu

“Will they moderate the marks for each subject based on difficulty? For example, for a super difficult paper, the actual marks may be 60, but the moderated marks may be 80?”— SpartanMum

Speculation:
“I like how people have assumed that there’ll be hundreds of ‘four-pointers’ fighting for the top secondary schools. I think it’s going to be quite the opposite. Expect many students in the 10–25 points range, with just a handful in the sub-10 range, and even less in the sub-five range.” — Technospaz

“If we refer to the level mean or cohort mean for P3 to P6 exam results reported in our kids’ report cards, many students’ subject scores for English, Maths, and Science tend to fall into Band 2 (i.e. the 80 to 84 range). This is equivalent to AL3 in the new system, which may mean that many students may be getting 12 points for four subjects. For Gifted Education Programme (GEP) schools, the level mean may be higher, falling into the low Band 1 range (i.e. 85 to 89 under the existing system). This is equivalent to AL2 under the new system. A number of students may also achieve AL1, particularly for subjects like Maths and Science. It will be harder to score AL1 for languages, especially for Chinese.” — phtthp

“I think MOE will set a standard affiliation policy, e.g. a two-point ‘discount’ across the board rather than leaving it to the individual school or association to set the standard. I feel that this will be fairer to those without affiliation and it will also reduce the stress of many parents and eliminate some of the large COP discrepancies between affiliate and non-affiliate students, especially for sought-after schools. This will also reduce artificially high COPs, which further perpetuate the image of elite schools… Standardising the affiliation cut-offs will also indirectly reduce Primary 1 enrolment stress—if you miss out in Primary 1, you still have a high chance of getting into a popular secondary school if you work hard. Again, this will give everyone a fairer chance to enter these schools regardless of one’s connections or background.” — UBKmom

“How will GEP students be affected? Most ‘GEPpers’ would have entered their school of choice via the Direct School Admission (DSA) route before the PSLE, so they are not really affected by this change.” — jetsetter

Concerns:
“From my point of view as a parent, the new PSLE 8-grade system will bring more stress and competition than the current one. I am content with my child getting an A and aimed for 75–85 marks previously. With the new system, I will have to push him to get at least 85 marks for a more decent grade of 1 or 2.” — 25HMOM

“The truth is, I don’t see any difference in the new banding system; it’s basically changed from 123 to ABC. What the MOE should do is explore how the subjects are taught and whether the schools are teaching students to handle tough exam questions. For example, we all know how useless the science textbooks are.” — janet88

“Isn’t the new measurement more granular? Previously, achieving Band 1 was easy, just score 85 and above. Now, 85 to 89 will put you in AL2. Knowing parents, they are going to be driving kids to get to 1. I would much rather see the MOE focus on developing strategies to recognise and celebrate excellence in other areas so that more students can excel in areas that they are passionate about, rather than being depressed that their Chinese sucks even though they might be geniuses at computer programming or sepak takraw. Stress in education stems primarily from our perceived inability to meet society’s expectations of competency. Essentially, it is not fair for students to be labelled failures if they excel in most subjects but fail in one. That, to me, is the root problem with the Singapore education system…

Perhaps they should introduce a system where students get to use their best subjects without being unduly pulled down by their Achilles’ heel subject. Until our society learns how to respect and properly recognise skills and talents of all shapes and sizes, changing the granularity by which we measure academic excellence will in no way reduce stress.” — ChiefKiasu

“The more privileged will definitely use their resources to get their children ready for the DSA… At the end of the day, I think the only way for all of us to survive this is to just accept it and move on. We should simply focus on our children and help them develop into the best they can be, not the best they can be compared to the rest. Let’s not hold on too tightly to the result, and focus on the process. And for those without the DSA advantage, make the six carefully considered and wise choices for your child. I don’t know what to say to anyone whose child doesn’t get any of their six choices, except to advise your child to make the best of what they get and never ever give up. There are many inspiring stories: In my family, we have someone who went from the Normal stream to the Express stream, and then onto JC before eventually getting a Second Class (Upper) honours degree from the NUS—and a solid job after that. Nothing is impossible.” — SpartanMum

Positive reactions:
“I think the new system aims to reduce the emphasis on getting that ONE point more than another kid, which hopefully means parents are less obsessed with the numbers since getting 91 is the same as getting 100. It is not that different from the O and A Levels, and I don’t think anyone thinks the O and A Levels are unfair to the top scorers. While the top scorer may not get her first choice of school out of sheer bad luck, I hardly think she will not have one of the other top schools to go to…

If students were allowed to pick their best subjects… can you imagine if someone decides a child doesn’t need to pay any attention to Maths for six years because he’s not good at it? I think there’s a need to keep an even focus across all subjects for the purpose of ensuring our children have a basic education and understanding in English, Maths, and Science. I think the Mother Tongue concept is outdated but I can’t see it changing, otherwise culturists will be up in arms.” — grimm

“I see the new system as being more transparent than a mere T-score. Perhaps it’s too early to say now, but my overall feel is, for T-scores, we focus on the number. It doesn’t matter what grades you get for each subject. We hear people saying ‘Student X’s 4As are better than Student Y’s 2A*s and 2As because Student X’s T-score is higher.’ We guess that A* is 90 and above and A is 75 to 89. And we ‘cleverly’ conclude that Student Y must have scored very low A*s and As while Student X must have scored very high As. But actually nobody knows what went on behind those numbers.

The new system has narrower bands and we can gauge the marks more accurately by the grades given, and because it doesn’t pit children against one another, the grades will reflect the actual strengths of the child. For now, I feel that the new system aims to move away from focusing on a number, which leads us to think that a student who got 3A* and 1F is less capable than one who got 4As. Perhaps, when the first batch of students under the new system gets their PSLE results, we can capture the public sentiment more accurately.

On one hand, I think it’s stressful because now there are specific, narrow ranges of marks to aim for, and we are used to the up-in-the-air and non-transparent grades for the T-score system; on the other, if you see it positively, your child can now truly work on his weak areas to better his own scores rather than worrying if the cohort’s average is going to be lower, much lower, higher, or much higher than his own scores.” — rains

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