PSLE standards are a runaway train that even Teachers can’t cope with, so kids NEED tuition.

I have moved the petition to here. Here is the Facebook Page. People complain that we are a tuition/enrichment nation without evaluating the reasons for it. We are a tuition nation because PSLE standards behave like a runaway train that even MOE’s teachers cannot cope with, thus students need tuition.

It has become accepted truth that when the population is large enough, people fall along a normal distribution curve (or bell curve) in just about every phenomenon. Fat-to-skinny people. Tall-to-short people. Smart-to-stupid people. High academic scores to low academic scores. Very few are at the very top, and very few at the very bottom. Most people are average. Click the following link to see how the RED LINE denotes the bell curve (or standard normal distribution) – . 

In educational testing (as well as in employee performance management) people force fit the grades into a bell curve – because the assumption is that every population, if large enough would fit a normal distribution curve (i.e., a bell curve). 

Is this true? 

One innovative HR Director (trained as an engineer and with a tendancy to question/challenge consultants) told me bluntly one day. "If I recruit well and have a conducive environment for high performance, why should my staff performance grades fall along a normal distribution curve? Why should I force fit my people so that I can pay bonuses along a bell curve? Here, in this company, about 50% of my people can get A performance grade because they are both smart (we recruited well) and hardworking (we have a conducive environment). In this company we do not shy away from paying people the bonuses they deserve. If I recruit well and manage well, my performance bell curve should be skewed. The normal distribution curve works with random events. In here, performance is not random. It is managed." 

Singaporean students often end up top of the heap in top end educational institutions abroad. We win the Angus Ross prize every year. Singaporeans graduate valedictorians in Ivy League universities. Singaporeans competed with Americans and became the first non-American (not first Singaporean) to top the cohort or win some prize or other. Are we genetically smarter? Probably not. Are we better educated? Probably yes.The MOE of the past decades TAUGHT well. Singapore education is a managed environment. Parents, teachers, tutors manage the education so well that our students breeze through alternative education systems without breaking stride. 

Let’s use the exact words of my HR Director friend to argue for why we should not be doing bell curve grading in the PSLE. 

"If I TEACH well and have a conducive environment for LEARNING, why should my STUDENTS’ grades fall along a normal distribution curve? Why should I force fit my STUDENTS so that I can pop them into the right educational institutions? Here, in this COUNTRY, about 80% of my people can get A performance grade because we TEACH well and STUDENTS are hardworking. In this COUNTRY, we do not shy away from giving students the opportunities they deserve. If I TEACH well and STUDENTS study hard, my performance bell curve should be skewed. The normal distribution curve works with random events. In this COUNTRY, STUDENT performance is not random. It is managed." 

The PSLE gets more and more difficult because no one dares to question the tyranny of the bell curve. If, in this year’s PSLE, the bell curve is skewed, the exam is considered poorly set because it is too easy. Next year’s exam gets harder… so that the bell curve’s belly goes back to closer to the middle (i.e., curve looks more like a normal distribution one). Then guess what, the schools push the students harder to do better. More classes, tougher homework, more homework. Thanks to parent and school hothousing, the kids rise to the occasion and the bell curve is skewed again. So the following year’s PSLE gets a little bit harder. More hothousing follows as people try to catch up with the bell curve. More enrichment. More tuition. Loving parents these days teach students to read thick books in TWO languages before Primary 1 in order to give their children a headstart. Others are exposing two year olds to Primary 1 Math concepts. When these babies grow up to PSLE age, the bell curve would have moved ahead of them… and parents may well find that despite all their trouble, their kids may still be behind the curve, simply because the system chases the bell curve and standards WILL move. And they would have sacrificed their entire toddlerhood running hard only to find that they are still in the same place. 

Let’s give back to our children their lost childhoods. 

Unfortunately too, many bright kids from underprivileged homes do not have the benefit (or misfortune) of being taught thus from such an early age. These will fall far behind. Carried to the extreme, bell curve grading DOES NOT make for equal opportunity because exams get harder and harder… and eventually those who make it, do so only because their parents have the wherewithal to coach and buy tuition. 

What makes the Singapore educational system even more competitive is that we categorize and pigeonhole our students by their position on the bell curve (i.e., the PSLE t-score). Depending on the PSLE t-score, our kids are pigeon-holed into top schools or bottom schools. If you get into a top school, the world is your oyster. You travel to Germany and Canada to take part in research conferences and international camps. You study from enhanced syllabuses. You get the best teachers… some of them with doctorates. I know because my daughter went to a top school. If you get into a bottom school, then your learning is defined by gangs. I know because some acquaintances are Principals in bottom schools. 

The t-score combined with the pigeonhole (top school… bottom school) is a lethal combination that leads to frenzied competition for the top positions along the bell curve. The only pity is that the child’s own ability matters less and less, whilst his/her access to enrichment resources matters more and more. People complain that we are a tuition/enrichment nation without evaluating the reasons for it. We are a tuition nation because grading along the bell curve has allowed PSLE standards to behave like a runaway train that even MOE’s teachers cannot cope with. Hence, parents turn to enrichment centres. 

Our educational system is a train going frenziedly faster past its destination called "Genius Standards", and it keeps on going. Meanwhile, our children are exhausted and hothoused so much they work hours that are illegal under many countries’ employment laws. 

Is the PSLE cut-off point the only way to distribute student talent? Why can’t we pick a number of secondary schools and call them GOOD schools? Then distribute resources equally amongst these schools, without overly concentrating resources at only the top 4 schools. Put students in these GOOD schools RANDOMLY who range from 240 to 280 in the PSLE t-score. This way, it may be less precise but it is still possible to teach compared to a range that stretches from 180 to 280. This way too, secondary students evolve with classmates of varying abilities. They make friends. Elitism does not get a chance to take root. Delinquents aren’t concentrated in any one school either. Mixed ability teaching teaches many life lessons which our best and brightest should learn – empathy, compassion, helping friends, loving (not competing). 

In 2008, Ng Eng Hen publicly unveiled plans to move the educational system towards greater individual attention (i.e., student-centric). See link here for original report. This would mean smaller classes, and with smaller classes and individualized attention, mixed ability classes would have been possible. Today in 2011, class sizes have little changed. 

How do you give individual attention in a class of 40+? 

Last year, my son was a 90+ student in all his subjects except Chinese. This year, he was streamed into the 2nd best class where he is taught like he was an 80+ student for all subjects. In Math, he is getting masses of easy worksheets and no practice at all to tackle the 4 most difficult questions in every paper. The 40 students in the best class skip all the easy worksheets and go straight for the challenging type questions. Little Boy has the potential to handle the challenging questions but since he was not getting taught in school (since he is not in the best class), he will not learn to handle them if I don’t teach him at home. If there is individual attention, it comes from me. 

To help him cope with the most difficult questions in his Math exam, I have to teach him concepts that his Teacher does not teach. You see, Teachers also don’t teach everything the exams test if you are in the wrong class. PSLE standards are now so high that there is too much to teach and too much for the textbook to document. Hence, Teachers must choose what to teach to whom, and textbooks don’t contain much of what exams test. The problem is that they teach the same thing to a group of children regardless of the individual strengths and weaknesses profile. Too bad if you are streamed into a class that under-teaches to your ability in some subjects, and over teaches to your ability in others. You won’t be well prepared for the most difficult questions in the PSLE. 

7 short years ago, I hardly helped The Daughter through her PSLE. She had no tuition and was just about literate only in Primary 1. She managed on her own without enrichment, and still got into a top school. I realize that seven years on, Little Boy cannot even pass exams without external enrichment. The system has become completely over-geared in 7 short years.What will happen to high IQ students who don’t have a Mother like me, able to take time off work to coach them? Or those whose parents cannot afford tuition? Or those who weren’t taught Primary 1 Math from age 2? Or those who didn’t learn to read thick books in two languages before Primary 1? 

Fast forward 20 years hence. Some high IQ kids with their progress blocked by lack of tuition and parental coaching would be adult. They ARE high IQ remember? Their only failure was that they didn’t have rich and educated parents who could afford tuition (or who were educated enough to teach them). These underprivileged children with high IQ will be young adults… full of drive and hunger to succeed? If the legitimate avenues to success are blocked, they will turn to illegitimate avenues. One cannot underestimate the human drive to succeed. We would have top class criminal minds pitted against a civil service that is bureaucratic and tired. By then, what can we do? Turn the clock back? 

Thanks to bell curve grading, PSLE standards are a runaway train that even MOE’s teachers can’t cope with, so kids NEED tuition, which poorer homes cannot afford. If this post resonates with you, please support the petition here –


interesting info

interesting info

Good write, Chenonceau

Good write, Chenonceau !

That’s right, our children deserve their long lost childhoods. Hope the new minister will do something about it.

a change of mindset?

I think there’s a need for a change of the mindset from MOE right down to the schools and then the parents.  Ultimately, we have to think what is best for our kids – wholesome education!

Great write up and thoughts

 I have four children, Sec3, Sec 1 and P2 and K2- and I concur with your observations on the runaway train of the PSLE examination. I too remember not helping my older children as much as I do now for my younger two. The standards are higher and parents (or tuition teachers) have to step in as many a time teachers do not teach everything and yet the students are tested in these questions. And it is so true how the top classes at a school are given the extra and the very weak classes are assisted. Unfortunately the middle ones are left behind. 

Do send in your arguments to MOE – I’m sure many parents are behind you -I’ll be one of them


MummyThreeStreams, thanks for

MummyThreeStreams, thanks for the headup!!

 thank you buds, I hope my

 thank you buds, I hope my kids get a lot of such teachers too!

your dds are very fortunate to have their wonderful teachers and you as their mom! 🙂

 hi amylqf, I can't comment

 hi amylqf,

I can’t comment on the "teach less, learn more" because each school and even different teachers implement it differently. The original aim of the policy is supposed to free up our kids, let them have more time to pursue topics of their interest in greater depth themselves, thus achieving greater learning.

But erm, whether it is actually achieved is really hard to measure. Just like the "no child left behind" in USA, very good motives but so widely criticised, even by educators themselves. 

About the exam Qs, I can offer some perspectives based on past experience. I used to teach in a school which receives the cream of the crop. When they come in, they are all straight A students from their Sec schools. i.e. They ace every single subject.

Since they are all so bright and smart, we cannot teach just the syllabus right? We may cover all the objectives required for the national exams (in my case the A levels), but we cannot discuss just that in the lectures or tutorials. They’d be bored.

Then when we set tests, even though they have been taught extra already, we also cannot just set questions that test them directly on the material they have right? 

These are "knowledge" level Qs, meaning, you just have to regurgitate whatever is learnt, and you get the marks.

If our tests and exams contain 100% of such Qs, every student who studied will get full marks. How are we going to differentiate them?

We need to differentiate them for different purposes, for Special Paper (now called H3), for Olympiad, for various other schemes and programmes, for remedial…

That’s why we need "synthesis" level questions (and "comprehension" level too). These would require the knowledge of the content, but the students have to understand it, infer/ interprete/ conclude… 

These are harder Qs that would allow us to differentiate the students better, then we can evaluate their understanding, their strengths and weaknesses better too.

As a parent too, I fully understand the student’s and their parents’ anguish when they get less than desirable marks. We have to constantly explain to them that it is ok to get a C, for example.

In fact, the E graders in school also go on to get A in the A levels. 

So, if it is the school’s own tests that you are worried about, then perhaps the school’s standard is higher, so you need not worry so much about the eventual national exam, just keep your child’s confidence prepped high, and help him to tackle the weaknesses. Don’t be too worried about the marks itself?

About the PSLE though, it is different from the O and A levels (big cohort all over the world). Which is why I agree with Chenonceau that drawing a bell curve for such a small population may not be a good idea.

Chenonceau, now there is a new group of leaders in MOE, maybe you should submit your arguments to them? 🙂

*hi5 kabalevsky*

For the sole reason of providing input to words from another parent on the ground, i give you my kudos. I am that same parent you have described in your post… a happy neighbourhood momma. My girls may never even be near-elite but they’re grrreeat children and i’m happy with that. 🙂

There are many teachers and also principals who are truly the hidden gems within the neighbourhood that are just awaiting to shine thru their perserverance and commitment to ensure their children get the best, show their best and do the school and themselves proud. While it may sound like a rare gem/case for such existence, rest assured they do exist. They are the true blue teachers who work to the core, to break boundaries, to push children to realize their potentials and most importantly… to inspire.

Have you seen moe's Facebook

Have you seen moe’s Facebook page?

They posted two notes today on grading, exams and class sizes. I didn’t have a chance to read through them. I think they’ve been reading ksp!

Good Comment

Kabalevsky, thank you for your comment. It introduces more balance into the perspective. Thanks for taking time to write.

Singapore's bottom schools not that bad

 Hi chenonceau,

I enjoyed reading your article and it does resonate with me. It is very well-written and I do agree that we should not fit everyone into a bell curve in every circumstance. (same goes for performance bonus too, but that’s another story) Kudos! 🙂

I’d like to point out that "bottom secondary" (or neighborhood primary/ sec schools) are not that bad like in some countries where they are situated in slums or are very run-down, short-staffed etc.

In Singapore, the neighborhood schools or schools that receive students with lower aggregate scores also have spanking new facilities, good teachers, visionary Principals and some interesting CCAs. 

They don’t often get into the news perhaps because the students they get have lower scores and the teachers/ P work hard to help them but it’s tough for them to attract attention away from the elite schools that hog the limelight.

About overseas attachments and educational trips, neighborhood schools also have them. They may not have that many, but I remember reading in the papers about some of them.

About gangs, it is true, they do exist in some neighborhood schools but if say a child from a good family background enters such a school and steers clear from the notorious kids, he/she can still have a relatively enriching sec sch education. 

My point is, a lot of kids and parents think it’s the end when they get posted to neighborhood schools, but it may not be that bad. Some kids do shine in these schools. 🙂


Thank you for amylqf.

Thank you for amylqf.

 something i don't quite

 something i don’t quite understand about singapore "teach less, learn more" approach.

I mean when you look at the text book, it is so fundamental and easy. but the exam question is way more than what text book/teacher teach.

so teacher teach less and parents or tuitor teach more, so that our children can cater for the high level exam?