Monday, October 12, 2009

The PSLE maths conundrum

Last PSLE paper today! Woohoo!!

By now, some of you may have heard of the ruckus over the PSLE maths paper on Thursday. In short, the paper was a killer. How tough was it? Let's see - a boy who's a Math Olympiad platinum winner cited the paper as Math Olympiad standard. Others have said it was even harder than some of the top schools' prelim papers.

Lesley-Anne came home teary-eyed as she couldn't solve three 4-mark questions and she barely finished the paper, no time to check at all. From what I heard over the grapevine, tears were flowing in PSLE exam halls all over Singapore. Lilian and I were predicting that complaint letters by panicky parents would rapidly find their way into the Straits Times' forum page. Surprisingly, this has not happened yet, although Today newspaper has already written a piece on it here.

I'm not one of those parents, in case you're wondering. The reason is that I have no wish to become one of those kiasu, whiny parents who complain whenever things don't go their way. Besides, I don't think it will make an iota of a difference (what, you expect MOE to hand you an A* because you complained?)

I have no issue with difficult PSLE papers. I think generally, it evens itself out because the PSLE T-score is moderated, meaning that each child is assessed not on the actual score on his exam paper but how he performs in relation to the rest of the cohort. The better you perform compared to your p6 peers, the higher your T-score will be, regardless of your actual mark. So a difficult paper is actually advantageous for kids adept in that subject because they will be better able to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Having said that, I think the challenge is to be able to pitch the level of the paper appropriately. In the case of this year's maths paper, I think it was unrealistically high. Of course this is just my gut feel since I haven't seen the paper, I'm going by comments I've read in forums and anecdotal accounts.

In most years, the PSLE maths paper contains a couple of very challenging questions which I assume is to suss out the truly bright mathematical talents. If so, then the majority of students are not expected to know how to solve these, which is fine. However, this year, the few challenging questions were so difficult that they stumped many of even the top tier maths whizzes, eg. those who participate in the Math Olympiad and those in GEP. If this is true, then instead of being able to identify the top 5%, maybe you end up identifying, say the top 0.5%. The top 5% then gets bunched up with perhaps the top 20% because all of them couldn't solve the same questions. (All numbers are arbitrary).

My question then is, how is this useful in any way? The handful of maths prodigies has most likely already been identified, through their past performance. What is the value of having a measurement tool that can differentiate only the top 0.5% followed by the next large category of 20%? Not much, in my opinion.

My main concern, however, is the impact on kids who are in the middle of the bell curve (which would be the majority). Again going by what I've heard, the rest of the paper was no piece of cake either, with many questions requiring a lot of time and thinking, even for Paper 1, which is traditionally more straight forward. This meant that many kids were not able to finish the papers. I know exams are also a test of time management but to what degree? I mean, is someone necessarily a better technician because he can assemble a gadget in 20 minutes versus one who can do it in 25 minutes? What are we testing here?

The purpose of any exam, especially a national one, should be to test understanding of the concepts and the ability to apply them, not to trip the kids up. I'm not suggesting you have a super simple paper that everyone can sail through but if you have a paper where a good proportion of the kids (who have gone through the national education system) is unable to perform satisfactorily in, I think it puts a question mark not on the students but on the system. Something is wrong - either the kids were not taught adequately or the exam not set correctly.

The casualties of course, are the kids. You can argue that since the T-score is moderated, kids shouldn't be too unduely distressed over an overly difficult paper. To that, I say we sometimes forget that these are 12-year-olds. Give them a break. Many of these kids have been slogging for the PSLE all year, diligently doing paper after paper, sacrificing tv and other pleasures for the hope of performing well at the PSLE. Being unable to answer the questions or even finish a paper sends them this message: "Your effort was not good enough." Demoralising is an understatement. Even if they do manage to attain a reasonable T-score, it's like a back-handed compliment - they just didn't do as badly as others.

Lesley-Anne was very disappointed with her performance in the paper after putting in so much work, although I acknowledge that having DSA does relieve the anxiety somewhat (thank God!) I hope that for the sake of the sanity of future parents and kids, the national exam policies and practices can be reviewed and adjusted appropriately. Not too much to ask, surely?


Anonymous said...

Good Analysis, Mon, as expected from you. The key is everything in moderation. No need to kill the forest for a few trees. Instead, if the few trees are that special, something special should be done directly on those special trees to test how special they are and find a way statistically to combine them back into the mass calculation. Mass approach needs to be age-appropriate to maintain sanity, otherwise it is hard to stop ks parents who want to skip grades in school if exams are not age-appropriate, right?

Also even with moderation, we are making a mockery of the exam if the majority is banded below eg. 50% on raw scores(like one yr in a particular school, I heard a p5 cohort's average score in a Math exam was 49%). In other words we are not testing enough of what the kids know but alot on what they do not know. Meaningful? LOL


monlim said...

QX: Regardomg the tough school papers, I think many schools (and parents) have this twisted notion that tough paper = high standards. Therefore since the school has such a tough paper that half the cohort failed, it must be a very good school, right? What crapiola.

I'm also tired of hearing that age-old justification, "oh, if we give a super tough paper and the kids do badly, they will buck up and work harder for the actual PSLE." No one has ever proven this theory, in fact I hear more kids saying that they're demoralised by overly tough papers and lose the motivation to work hard. Another urban legend, ya think?

i'mnotsmarterthanaP6 said...

the question we should ask ourselves is: Are you smarter than the 2009 PSLE Math Paper? :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mon

I know Lilian's son is very good in Maths. Do you know how he feels about it? Haven't read her comments.


monlim said...

T: According to Lilian, Brian attempted everything but found out later he probably got some of them wrong so he was quite down. But I'll leave it to her to comment further :)

Anonymous said...

When I read some of these questions, they stumped me at first. But when I saw the workings, hey, actually they were not that difficult. Only you have to open your eyes big and see the solution, especially the geometry question. Guess, one got to keep calm and cool, and analyse the questions through and through, but easier said than done, especially when they are only 12 years old.


marcsp said...

Hi Mon,

Sad to hear so many feedback on PSLE Math. I shared the same feeling as you. Why set the papers so hard that it demoralised the students. My son is in P.5 now and he is already doing challenging Math questions to prepare for PSLE !! Not that we are kiasu, the schools n teachers are kiasu too !!! Thank God that my son enjoys doing challenging Math. But my 'concern' is still the same as all the other parents, ie. is next year Math going to be even tougher ? How well must I prepare my son and yet not to stress him ? My sis always assured me that normally for tough papers, a lot of students scored A* while those easy papers, they ended up getting A or even B (must be the T-score system). Her daughter is in Sec.1 now. DSA to IP school, smart girl.
With tough education system (PSLE), no wonder lots of parents sending their children as young as 3 years old to as many enrichment courses as possible. So sad !!! These children hardly have any enjoyable childhood.
This is the one of the reasons why I stopped at 2 though very much wanted a girl !!!

Lilian said...

We've discussed this. I think the good students were disadvantaged this year by not being able to use the extra time from Paper 1 for the harder Paper 2 (the two papers were done separately this year unlike past years when they were done in 1 straight session). Brian had 1/2 hour to spare from Paper 1.

For Paper 2, he normally has 1 hour to check but this paper was so hard he had only 20 min. In his words, "It was lots harder than Nanyang paper!"

Based on how Brian did, I would say the paper is doable, but either combine both papers so kids who're done with Paper 1 can move on to Paper 2 (not really possible since calculators are only allowed for Paper 2); or allocate an extra 20-30 min for Paper 2.

The mistakes Brian found were for the curry puff question where he amazingly converted $50.00 into 50000 cents when calculating, and hence got the wrong answer but with the right method; and the balloon question where he managed to set up the simultaneous equations BUT placed the X and Y for one of the equations wrongly. For the geometry question, he completely missed the isosceles triangle and got 120 deg. I'm glad he got that question wrong instead of wasting precious time staring at it for 30 min as one of his classmates did! For the perpendiculars in TEAM, he missed M.

For the rest, seems to be okay so far...he used models for the last ratio question, and the cookies question. The speed question was surprisingly easy once he explained it to me.

There was just one question which he's been trying to explain to me but till now I still don't get it, and it's from Paper 1, so Paper 1 wasn't exactly a walk in the park either!! (It's about kids taking turns to play computer games)

So overall, questions weren't so tough that they were unsolvable, time was the issue here cos there were too many questions which required the Eureka bulb to light up above our kids' heads, that can take more than a few minutes sometimes, and there just wasn't enough time for that! Many kids came home and discovered the questions they missed were absolutely within their capability to solve, just not under exam conditions and time pressure.

We're just glad this is all over. Secondary school is a new ball game altogether, don't think it's as mind-boggling as PSLE, well, I hope not!

naggo-nitemare said...

I always feel tt PSLE should be a basic national test to ensure tt our 12-yr-olds hv reached a certain level of literacy, after 6 years of education in their formative yrs. What this math exam has done is to traumatise our young into thinking tt they are just not gd enough. Within tt 2 hrs, mass devastation to self-confidence of so many. My friend's P6 daughter from a 'top' girls' pri sch was teary n insomniac that night after the paper n had to sit for the MT exam the next mrng in a bad state.

Veronica_L said...

I think they should make it easier, to prevent causing kids this kind of stress. According to teachers I know, the papers get harder progressively each year, so...brace yourself for Andre's PSLE. Due to the T-score, Lesley-Anne should be OK lah, but it would have been so much better if she had more time...if GEP struggles, what will the mainstream do?

Anonymous said...

A math paper should be testing math concepts and applications. This paper has become an English paper, testing pupils command of English.

Many pupils simply could not comprehend what the balloon question is all about. So how are they to apply what math concepts to solve the question?

The same applies for the Angles question, involving equilateral and isosceles triangles.

By splitting the paper into two separate papers, more time should have been allotted for each paper as time saved in paper 1 could not be used to solve difficult questions in paper 2. While in the past the pupils had no such problem as booklet A (15 questions) and booklet B were given out at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Here are some of the Math questions:

Besides the Balloon and Angles questions, I also don't quite understand the Salary & Pay (Raj and Devi) question.

Judge for yourself if it has become an English paper!

Anonymous said...

I hear quite a few GEP pupils cried. Uh-oh for mainstream pupils.

Anonymous said...

According to my daughter, it's not an easy paper. NYPS'09 Prelim is easier according to her (she got close to full marks for that). She only has 10mins to check. So far, she has already confirmed she made some careless mistakes here & there. sigh...Apart from the ratio question, she got most of the 'difficult'questions correct. To be honest, the ratio question is NOT DIFFICULT at all. This kind of question has been appearing in past exam papers, assessments & etc all this while. She usually do not have problem with such question... must be due to exam stress she got it wrong. Any way, no use crying over spilt milk. NYPS principal also commented that it is a fair paper. By the way, she's from mainstream.

Albert said...


It is good to look at your blog again. It is over, PSLE. My daughter quite enjoys her time after PSLE. Only one fiction book is at her bag now. She ticked 3008 last night for her DSA. She is only waiting result of PSLE.

My daughter is a Math Olympiad platinum winner this year. She also feel so bad at math. She told us it is like to run 3k meter to finish the math. She missed isosceles triangle at the geometry question too, and just did it half way. It is good that she still may manage her time to complete all others and get correct answers. She got some errors at paper 1 too. But I still think the A* still should belong to her.

Albert said...


I have to say. How my daughter can complete the PSLE math on time. For paper 2, only algebra is used to answer all questions. She knew that she cannot finish the paper if she did them by other ways. It is good that she knows how to use algebra when she is at p3 and get quite familiar now. I also saw some questions from old paper which she has to use quadratic equation. So nowadays, you have to teach them more for those exams. For GEP pupils, some math questions like level 3 at S4!!!

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