This article was published in issue no. 1301 of the Hammer, the Workers' Party's publication, which went on sale during the Punggol East By-Election and is currently being sold by members at selected market places. I co-wrote the article in December 2012 with NCMP Yee Jenn Jong.
A recent issue, which has elicited lots of discussion, is the stress that PSLE puts on young families and young children. Minister of State Josephine Teo criticized OCBC for fanning the exam fever with its new PSLE leave scheme for employees. The media also tried to balance the coverage of top-scoring PSLE achievers with heartwarming stories about those who have succeeded in their careers and lives despite mediocre PSLE scores. Even the Prime Minister weighed in: he said that PSLE results are not the only thing which determines whether one lives a fulfilling and productive life; good moral values, strong social skills, and a sense of duty to one’s family and nation are just as important. He added that students should study hard but also play and pursue their passions.
While we should acknowledge the stress problem and seek to keep it under control, we must recognise that stress is just the symptom. We need to look into the causes of the stress. As the saying goes, we should treat the disease, not the symptom. This requires us to look into the education system itself, just as a doctor would look into one’s health system.
Although some have called for an overhaul or even removal of the PSLE, so as to give our kids the space to exercise their creativity and pursue holistic projects, the Prime Minister said that the PSLE is necessary as it is required for selecting students for secondary schools.
However, if we are to retain the PSLE for this purpose, we need to reform the PSLE away from using it as a sorting mechanism to using the PSLE as a signalling tool.
The PSLE as a Sorting Mechanism
The PSLE as a sorting mechanism follows what educationists call the norm-referencing method of assessing students relative to one another. In this norm-referencing method, students will receive grades adjusted to a T-distribution graph, a bell-shaped curve with most students falling in the middle two-thirds. In other words, students’ grades are not completely based on the actual marks obtained in the exam, but are scaled and indirectly affected by the performance of other students in the cohort.
Secondary schools use this norm-referenced overall score as the basis for admission. This means our education system is still primarily using the PSLE as a sorting mechanism – to pick out the top performers relative to the entire cohort.
There have been some calls for the PSLE to drop this use of norm-referenced score and to use the criterion-referencing method, whereby grades are given to students based on the actual marks that they obtain in the exam. However, some top secondary schools may still devise new tests to differentiate applicants with specific strengths based on their areas of niche specialisation.
The PSLE as a Signalling Tool
Rather than being a sorting mechanism, the PSLE should be seen as a signalling tool combining both criterion-referenced and norm-referenced grades that are used as only one reference point for admission into secondary schools. We should reform the PSLE by reducing the significance of its weighty T-score into percentile bands and to provide more fine-grained subject grades so that secondary schools would give more weight to them than the norm-referenced score.
In a diversified education system, schools could then be given the autonomy to use different kinds of subjective admissions instruments like interviews and portfolios. In fact, many schools offering niche specialisation are already using such instruments. Besides being fairer, this would also go some way in reducing the stress level of PSLE students.
However, our efforts would come to nothing if we do not address the most fundamental imbalance plaguing our education system.
Inequality in the Education System
An underlying problem is the inequality in our education system. It is very telling that private tuition centres have begun to offer enrichment and preparatory courses for the direct admissions tests required for entry into top secondary schools.
Primary school registration favouring children of alumni (“old boys” or “old girls”), volunteers and community leaders, unequal distribution of educational resources and good teachers, as well as the Edusave fund being used as reward rather than as enabler, just to name a few, are policy causes of this inequality. These have caused the hardening of the social structure, such that middle-class parents are now struggling harder and harder to bridge the meritocratic gap between resource-rich and resource-poor parents. We need more than the feel-good principles of “every school is a good school”. We need every school to be as well-equipped and staffed. We need to work towards smaller class sizes to make learning more effective, especially for the children of resource-poor families. In other words, we need to create a fair starting line for meritocracy to work.
This way, we will have our own uniquely Singaporean utopian scenario of many good secondary schools competing for many good students graduating from many good primary schools, instead of having many primary school children competing to become the few good students streamed into the few elite or “branded” secondary schools.
What we need is a student-centric education system, where schools and exams serve students rather than the other way round.
the persistently political pine stays green in the winter of the patriarch ... while, one by one, the gentlemen fall prey to the corruption of power and patronage
s/pores new directions in singapore studies