What’s the big deal about the PSLE changes?

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For many of us, one of the most striking memories of primary school was studying for the PSLE. Our parents and teachers constantly reminded us how important it was and pressured us to excel in it. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that it felt as though your future depended on how well you did.

It is precisely this mentality that the Ministry of Education is trying to shift away from. It recently announced that the revamped PSLE scoring system will have eight grade bands, called Achievement Levels (ALs), that will replace the current aggregate or T-score from 2021. This means that students’ marks for the four PSLE subjects will be converted into eight bands, with 1 being the highest result and 8 being the lowest. According to MOE, the ALs are meant to “reflect broadly different levels of achievement” and reduce over-emphasis on grades.

Changes won’t help to lessen stress
However, many parents think the changes won’t help to ease the grades rat race and stress currently faced by students. Prema Sanjay Menon, who has two children in Primary 3 and 5, says, “Even with the eight grade bands put in place, students will be extremely concerned over every mark. This is because a difference of one mark can result in a student scoring a different AL”.

Carina Chuah, whose two sons are in Primary 1, agrees. She points out that the narrower range of the new grade bands might lead to students scoring lower in their weaker subjects. “Imagine if [a child] scores in the mid-60 [range] for all four subjects, he will get a total of 20 points versus [another who scores] in the low-60 [range] for two subjects and mid-60 [range] for two subjects, he will get a total of 22 points”.

“Kids will still be equally stressed to ensure the marks they get for each subject falls (sic) within the Achievement Levels 1 or 2”.

Some believe that any changes to the system will have little effect due to the competitive mindset of kiasu parents. “I think there will still be parents who would want their children to strive for good grades, the competitiveness of the parents who wants [sic] to give their children the ‘edge’ over other children,” says Collin Goh, who has two daughters aged five and eight.

Echoing this view is Chelsea Cheh, whose son is in Primary 1. She doubts there will be a “paradigm shift” in the deeply ingrained culture of chasing grades as parents “are still very academic focused”.

Mixed opinions on grade bands as accurate gauge of ability
Some parents feel the grade bands are a more accurate gauge of students’ abilities since it assesses them based on their performance instead of relative to their peers. “The new grading system will take away the comparison between the student and their peers. With the release of the new scoring system, parents and students will hopefully have set and worked towards a realistic goal for each subject,” says Mrs Cheh.

Others feel the distinction between bands, especially at the upper ALs, has too much influence on the secondary school a student ends up in. “It doesn’t mean that a student who scores 84 (AL3) is much worse than another student who scores 85 (AL2) but the final score can mean a world of difference when it comes to secondary school posting,” says Joanne Seah, whose daughter is in Primary 3.

What next for secondary school enrolment?
Mr Goh also questions how schools will adjust their enrolment criteria under the new system. “Previously with the T-score and limited intake, schools [admit those with] the lowest applicant score and that’s it. Now with banding, how [will] schools adapt to the enrolment? Give entrance interviews? Entrance essays?”

With the news sparking much concern and angst among parents, only time will tell if the changes will indeed lead to a more well-rounded education system as MOE claims. Given Singaporeans’ tendencies to push their children academically and the continuing debate over what the changes mean, it’s unlikely that stress levels and the focus on grades will ease anytime soon.

For more information on the PSLE changes, visit https://www.moe.gov.sg/microsites/psle/index.html.

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