The current buzz among parents is of course, the recent National Day Rally announcements to upcoming changes to the school system, not least of all, the PSLE. I was asked to be interviewed for the Channel 5 programme Voices Today on this topic. At first I declined (it's on live tv! What could be more terrifying!) but then Mediacorp kindly said I could do the interview via phone, so I did.
Since I was going to do the interview, I had to organise my thoughts on the matter, so I thought I might as well share them here as well.
Why is the proposed banding system for PSLE good?
the way PSLE t-score is computed and released to the students is very unhealthy
because it ranks each student in a linear form from first to last. If some
children get the same t-score, the t-score then can move down to several
decimal places to decide who gets placed before another.This sends the message that a child who gets
say, 241 is somehow better than the one who got 240. Even worse, the one
scoring 260.25 is better than another one who got 260.21.
As the PM said, this
sort of fine stratification is meaningless.
Because of the way secondary school admissions is done based on this t-score ranking, the
competition is stifling. You try to outdo as many in your cohort as possible.
You have students and parents clamouring for every last point, because losing
out one spot in the ranking can mean not getting into your school of choice. It’s
not about doing well, it’s about doing better than others.
I wouldn’t say this
is the only reason for the tuition culture but it certainly exacerbates it. You know how we sometimes find it baffling that very bright students go for
tuition in all subjects. But if you are aiming for the top school, eg RI/RGS/HCI/NYGS, you
basically need to score 260 and above to be assured of a place (or maybe even more than that). Now,
nobody, no matter how well they've been doing, would be cocky enough to
think that they can guarantee that score. You're talking about the top 5%
of cohort or so. So even if you’ve been scoring 95, you still go for tuition to try and chase that
100. Every bit matters. Whereas now,
if scoring above 245 will mean you have a shot at the top schools, then
there is less pressure. An A* is an A*.
part, the current system means that they have to keep accelerating the standard of the papers
every year, or at least come up with novel questions that only the super bright
will be able to work out because there is a need to differentiate the kids.
This is another meaningless exercise because the purpose of the PSLE is to test
what the kids have learnt, not test what they don’t know.
How should the banding be done?
I’m not sure
how MOE will do the banding. One way is to just allocate points to the grades like O levels eg. A* = 1 pt, A = 2 pts, B = 3 pts, etc. However, since there are only four subjects,
you probably would end up with too broad categories, ie too many kids falling
within the same category of points.
To me, a fairer way is to keep the t-score
formulation but release them in bands instead of absolute numbers. Eg. 245 and
above (which I estimate to be about the top 15% of cohort) can be in one
band. This way, the student or the
secondary school will not know whether the student scored 245 or 260. The
message we’re sending is that all these students are capable academically,
there is no need for a finer distinction at age 12.
felt that it’s easy for the top secondary schools to talk about their straight
A graduates when they take in the top 5% of students to begin with. Most of
these students will do well even if they were placed in a non-branded
neighbourhood school. The more important question is, how much value did that
top school give to the student? This new banding will be a truer test. If these
top schools can take in a more diverse range of students and still produce the
same number of straight A graduates, then it’s proof that the school helped to
achieve the result.
Will this really lessen the pressure and competition?
eliminate competition totally because PSLE is still considered a high-stakes exam and students will still try to get into higher bands.
However, it will definitely lessen the stress somewhat. For the very bright
students who are already doing very well, there will now not be a need to chase
the last point. That time can now be spent on more meaningful activities, like
sports, arts, CCA, community service, etc.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that
competition in these other areas will now increase because for the top schools, there will probably be more
applicants within the band than spaces, in which case I'm not sure what will be the next
step. Look at CCAs and other criteria? Do a separate GAT test? So you'll find that instead of going for tuition, to ensure a space,
parents will send their children for extra sports/music lessons etc. And
you'll end up chasing something else, like kids trained to be national
swimmers from kindergarten. But if I were to look for the silver lining, at least it's less narrowly focused on academics.
At the end of the day, the system can only do so much. There will always be kiasu parents.
Why don't we just get rid of banding altogether and have pass/fail like in the past?
I think we need to acknowledge that some kids are just more able academically than others. We can't dispute that a 260 scorer is better at studies than a 200 scorer. Putting them together in the same class will not be an efficient model because they learn differently. But what banding signals is that there is no need to differentiate between a 245 scorer and a 260 scorer. They probably can learn equally well together. It's about creating the most optimal setting for learning.