Friday, January 17, 2014

Higher Chinese and its implications

As an IP student, Lesley-Anne didn't have to sit for the GCE 'O' levels, as she had a through-train pass to Junior College (JC) (as long as she met the minimum requirements in her school exams). However, she did sit for one paper last November - the 'O' level Higher Chinese exam.

The results were released last Monday and... happiness! Lesley-Anne scored a B3 which we're absolutely thrilled about. This means that she won't have to take up Chinese as a subject in JC. One less subject to worry about, one less exam. That's always good news!

Those who have followed my blog from way back when Lesley-Anne was in primary school (gosh, that seems like a million years ago!) will know that Chinese was always a subject that she struggled with. We don't speak Mandarin at home and she had a pretty lackadaisical childhood, free from all kinds of enrichment programmes. Her kindergarten didn't even have a Chinese teacher for six months and it was only before she entered p1, that I realised just how appalling Lesley-Anne's Chinese standard was. That's when I engaged a Chinese tutor for her and even then, it wasn't very intensive.

All things considered, Lesley-Anne has always done ok in Chinese but it's certainly not one of her strengths. It was the only PSLE subject she didn't score an A* in but we weren't expecting anything more. Then came secondary school, where all the students in her school had to take Higher Chinese. Wah, how to cope when she didn't even take Higher Chinese in primary school? Nevertheless, she gamely said she'd give it a try. Call it foolhardiness. Or maybe ignorance really is bliss.

So she plodded along and it was TOUGH. She had to attend remedial classes. She had Chinese tuition. She was called up for prep tests because she performed below the cohort's average. Her compositions were probably 'Dick and Jane' compared to some of her classmates' Shakespearean sonnets.

Thing is, we as parents weren't too anxious because we could see how much effort she put in. And that's why we're so delighted that she managed a B3 - she earned it through sheer dogged hard work. Sweat and tears.

This part of Lesley-Anne's journey is now over but I was pondering the polarising topic of Chinese in Singapore schools. There's the pro camp and the anti camp. And then there are those who are so terrified of it that they will find all ways to avoid it, especially at PSLE. Yes, I'm talking about the group that are exempt from Chinese. As far as I know, there are a couple of ways to be exempt from Chinese - 1) the child is away from Singapore for a minimum number of years 2) the child has been medically diagnosed as having a disability in languages (usually dyslexia).

I want to stress that most of these cases are absolutely legitimate. I'm not suggesting that anyone is faking a disability to get out of Chinese, especially since the condition has to be certified by professional psychologists anyway. But I find it amusing to hear anecdotal accounts of how in certain schools *ahemmissionschools*, by p5, there is suddenly a sizeable number of kids being sent to the psychologist because their parents are convinced they have a learning disability in Chinese. Or how some parents, on hearing that they're being posted back to Singapore from an overseas stint, will ask for their posting to be delayed/extended so that their child can hit the minimum period to be exempt from Chinese.

All these accounts demonstrate just how much the PSLE and Chinese are dreaded. To me, the situation is made worse by how MOE has chosen to remain very vague about the issue. When a child is exempt from Chinese, how is his t-score calculated? Here's MOE's reply to a question on their website:
Q: Would pupils who are exempted from offering Mother Tongue Language at PSLE be at a disadvantage as compared to those who offer the subject at PSLE?

A: No. These pupils’ PSLE aggregate scores would be adjusted so that they are neither disadvantaged nor advantaged.
Translation: Nyeh nyeh ni nyeh nyeh! We're not telling!

It's truly a non-answer because it is not humanly possible to make sure that every student is not disadvantaged or advantaged. So parents start guessing and their guess is that, when you're exempt from Chinese, your fourth grade is an average of the grades of your other three subjects. If this is true, then if your child is bad in Chinese, this is a HUGE advantage. Not only does he get to count only the other three subjects which he's likely to be better in, he has one fewer subject to study.

There's no way of knowing if this is true but again anecdotally, looking at cases from my kids' classes who had been exempt from Chinese, it seems to bear out. These kids have generally gotten higher t-scores in comparison to other kids in class with a similar standard of English/Math/Science.

If this is true, then my personal opinion is it's not really fair lah. To prevent any over-zealous parents from exploiting this loophole, MOE should do something like say, all those exempted from Chinese will be given a Chinese grade equivalent to the AVERAGE of the cohort. Or something like that. Then these parents will really have to consider if it's worthwhile trying to get that exemption.

What I don't get though, is why Mother Tongue continues to be given special treatment. No, Chinese Nazis! I'm not saying Chinese is not important! Of course learning Chinese is important. But consider this: at PSLE, those who ace Higher Chinese are given two extra points for SAP schools. Which I accept as fair cos it's only two points and only for Chinese schools. But then comes 'O' levels and those who pass Higher Mother Tongue (HMT) are given two extra points for admission to JC.

I'm sure everyone will agree with me that two points for JC admission is a WORLD of difference from two points at PSLE. Cut off point to the top JCs is in single digits. Two points can be as much as 33.3% of your L1R5 score! The message is this: HMT is not just important, it is the MOST important subject. Why not special recognition for English? Or Maths? Or Science? To me, this is baffling.

You can't sell me the argument that it's to encourage kids to take HMT because in JC, if you haven't taken HMT, it's compulsory to continue MT lessons at H1 level. Which is somewhat like HMT at 'O' levels. And the HMT kids would already have the advantage of not having to go for any more MT lessons in JC, freeing up their time for other subjects.

To me, this is an instance of how some education policies have not evolved with time. Maybe in the old days, two points didn't make much of a difference, and not that many kids take HMT. But in today's very kiasu and very competitive landscape where people chiong down to the last decimal point, it becomes yet another area for kids, parents and teachers to strategise, so as to get the better of the system.

I know the Chinese subject is a hot potato. Let's see if anyone in MOE is brave enough to raise the issue.


CY said...

Hi Mon

In my kids' school I found out many kids are exempted - and frankly I am not sure if the reasons are all that legitimate. I know of "gep" kids who are exempted. Not sure how come they can be considered as having a learning disability when they are fantastic in English ? Having to deal with only 3 subjects instead of 4 is a big advantage for PSLE. A kid who took only 3 subjects even topped the cohort last year.

Rita said...

Congrats to LA !!! B3 is very commendable indeed. My daughter is one of the very few girls exempted from MT in LA's school. I think she was the first case and in the year after, 2 more girls followed and then MOE says no more MT-exempted kids in SAP school !

My daughter hugely enjoys the Chinese culture in the school without having to sweat for the very tough Higher Chinese exams in the school and she sits in for the Chinese lessons as well. I am happy that she's finally enjoying Chinese lesson ;-)

Anonymous said...

Based on some forums and research, for those exempted in Chinese during PSLE:

"Aggregate score in the three subjects is statistically adjusted (not a mathematical formula) such that his final aggregate score will be on par with the aggregate scores for four subjects that are typically obtained by the group of pupils who have similar aggregate scores in the three subjects."

To me, this is a disadvantage for those students who are taking all 4 subjects but are weak in Chinese, though they are strong in the other 3 subjects.

1) They have 1 more subject to study compared to those exempted students
2) Their Chinese actual result could be in the lower bracket and lower than those typically obtained by students having the same results in the other 3 subjects.
This would result in their overall score to be lower than those who are exempted, even though their other 3 subjects are at the same level.

Xmen said...

Wow... sounds super stressful for kids. I have not heard similar complaints in US or Europe where students are required to take up a foreign language.

LKY's idea is just one man's idea but it sure has tortured generations of Singaporean children and parents.

monlim said...

CY: Are you sure it was due to learning disability and not absence from Singapore?

Rita: Yeah, it's sad that the stress of doing well in exams takes away so much of the joy of learning the language! It's great your dd can just focus on the learning and usage. That's what learning Chinese should be about, ideally.

Xmen: Well, it's not only about the policies. It's the entire education eco-system of parents, kids and educators. Education stress is always higher in Asian countries cos of the importance placed on education scores and exams.

Tan said...

For the record, I want all my kids to take HCL regardless of bonus points and the emergence of China. I want them to take it because it's part of our culture and heritage.

To tackle Higher Chinese, MOE will have to tackle Higher Malay and Higher Tamil as well. Plus if MOE would to tackle HMT, they will have to review the rest of the items that qualify for bonus points too.

How do you feel about the other items that qualify for bonus points? The list can be found in this link

Need to scroll down a bit.

Of all the bonus points, the one that puzzles me the most is the affiliation bonus points. I feel that affiliation bonus points has no place in a meritocracy based education system.

monlim said...

Tan: yes, I did mention HMT. It's Malay and Tamil too, not only Chinese.

Affiliation is a heritage thing and I do understand the reasoning behind it - it's the encourage those who want to continue being part of the cultural legacy of the school. Sure, people have debated that it's not fair for those who don't really care about the culture and just want to enjoy the benefit. I guess I don't mind this so much because it's limited to one specific JC, whereas HMT is 2 points for ANY JC.

As for CCA, I think this one is acceptable cos it's to reward kids who perform beyond academics.

Tan said...

Thanks for sharing your views in regards to my qn.

Karmeleon said...

Good for her! That's such a superb grade! But I heard students in premier JCs who got Bs & below are encouraged to take H1 CL just so they can have Perfect As.

Angelia said...

My child was exempted from chinese due as he was diagnosed with dyslexia. I was oblivious to his learning disability till his school teachers advised me to get him "tested" during one of the parents meeting session when he was in P4. He had been scoring badly in both English & Chinese but doing well in Math & Science. Anyway, after the diagnosis was made, I proceeded to get him exempted from Chinese and he started receiving help with his English by a trained dyslexia professional. His English has improved since - from borderline pass to high Cs or low Bs.

Exemption from Chinese will definitely better the T-scores at PSLE BUT it also limits the students in terms of their choices for sec school. The child psychologist had told us that we were fortunate that my kid is from a mission school as it would mean that he has affiliation with a sec school. According to him, most "good" schools (esp the more recognised ones) will not accept students with MT exemption even though his T-scores may meet the minimum requirement. I think only students (with MT exemption) with exceptional grades will only be accepted at those schools. Thus, parents whose kids with are exempted from MT must accept the fact that they are also limiting the sec choices for the children if they proceed to do so.

monlim said...

Karmeleon: L-A's JC imposes B4 as the minimum grade for not needing to retake H1 CL. But if L-A didn't meet this criterion, I was going to write an exemption letter for her anyway. It's ridiculous lah, this pointless chase for As.

Angelia: Thanks for sharing! I've not heard of schools turning down kids with MT exemption but I think one of the more important backlashes is that the child ends up not learning Chinese at all. I think parents need to consider if it's worthwhile trying to get a leg up in the PSLE vs the longer term disadvantage of not learning an important language. (Not referring to legitimate cases like yours, of course). As far as I know, MT is still very much exam-based in Singapore, meaning the MT teachers don't want MT-exempt kids going for their lessons. Which is a shame.

Karmeleon said...

hehe - mine still has to take H1 CL in JC1 now bc cannot meet MOE's requirement (not school). So envious for those who can drop. Less 3.5hrs of class time per week.

monlim said...

Karmeleon: Alamak! Sorry to hear that. But if it's any consolation, H1 CL is easier than O level HCL (due to bell curve of cohort), so hopefully your kid can do well enough to drop it after the first year.

Karmeleon said...

That's what I heard. Hopefully!

Stuly Kan said...

1. ex education minister Ng Eng Hen tried to redress this glaring anomaly but was crucified by the Chinese speaking community defending their turf
2. Chinese has become the national language of Singapore as it is more important to speak good mandarin than good English in our education system son with 3 A* but a C for Chinese obviously didn't qualify for any top school as our country doesn't need people who aren't completely bilingual

monlim said...

Stuly: No point making sweeping generalisations. 3 A* and a C will not get one into a top school, no matter which subject the C was in. I guess I'm a little sceptical about what you're saying, looking at your profile.

Xmen said...

I disagree that 3 A* and a C will not get one into a top school. If this kid is applying to HYP or Oxbridge, his C in Chinese will not be an handicap. Believe it or not, a brilliant mathematician is unlikely to be proficient in multiple languages.

monlim said...

Xmen: I think Stuly is talking about entry to top secondary schools via PSLE t-score. Agree that at the uni level, none of this would matter. Actually at the uni level, PSLE scores don't count for anything!

Xmen said...

IMHO, a C in Chinese should not prevent a child from attending "top" secondary schools.

monlim said...

Xmen: I guess it depends how one defines "top" secondary schools. If it's the schools that take in the top 10% of PSLE cohort, that's generally those scoring above 250 t-score. And in my experience, it's quite hard to get 250 and above with a C grade in any subject (not just Chinese).

It doesn't matter anyway. To me, "top" sec schools are overrated and if a child is really good in everything else except Chinese, then he will likely do very well at O levels.

Jo said...

Hi Mon
My older daughter is taking HCL in primary sch as she was recommended. I decided since my younger daughter was not recommended to not opt for it. I feel my younger's chinese is a lot weaker so HCL would be rather challenging for her. I was very surprised that many parents take the view that they should go for HCL no matter what as it will help their normal Chinese for PSLE, even though the sch did not recommend it. Do you agree ? I am wondering if I have made the wrong decision for my younger daughter ...but it's too late to opt for HCL anymore :( Would this mean that she is effectively shut out from taking HCL in sec sch if she doesn't do very well in PSLE. The 2 pts deduction seems to be so impt now & I regret not thinking ahead ....

monlim said...

Jo: I absolutely disagree that everyone has to take HCL no matter what. That's the trouble with giving special points for HCL - it makes pple kiasu! If your dd is weak in Chinese, she will struggle with HCL and spend a lot more time on this subject. 2 pts for PSLE is insignificant, IMO, esp since it's only applicable to SAP schools (and if her Chinese is weak, why would she want to go to a SAP school?)

You can take it from L-A's case, that even without HCL in primary school, you can still take HCL in sec school. Although you have to be prepared for a lot more work, I guess.

Cheer up, you're doing the right thing!

Vivienne said...

Hi Monica

I totally agree with you "that's the trouble with giving special points for HCL - it makes pple kiasu!" All my nephews took higher Chinese but do they appreciate the language at all? No..I do not think so cause once they cleared their HCL at Sec 4...their remarks were all the more Chinese "torture"

My elder son is now in P4 mission school and I am at a total loss as what to do with his you can know...we are a potatoe family. The thought of trying to fake an exemption did come into my mind but I can't do that cause it is not right but yet I already start to fear what will happen to his PSLE. We had engaged a private tutor but we also know there is only so much a tutor can do. Help!!

Seriously, I hope MOE will look into account of this MT problems..and oh yes..congrat to LA for her grade! It is not easy at all for HCL!


Lance said...

The image just brought a smile on my face :) Informative article though.

Anonymous said...

Congrats L-A and Mon for the great results but most importantly I am sure L-A is proficient and confident expressing in the language to open more doors for her in future in her communications with the world.

Mon, I agree with many of your rebuttal points to some of the issues raised, just cannot list them one by one here.. Just one word Bravo!

Just an experience to share with you, there is a kid I know exempted from MT exams but still attending MT lessons in school. So I think some parents do see the value of learning, just that to score A* is tough maybe but over time, they will get better...just not enough runway to PSLE for an A*.....


monlim said...

QX: Happy Year of the Horse to you! I'm not sure L-A is confident expressing herself in Chinese. Unfortunately it was still largely exam skills, involving lots of memory work, lol!

I think it's good that Chinese-exempt kids still attend lessons. Unfortunately, I heard that some schools don't want these kids in the class as they don't see the point of teaching someone who won't be sitting for the exams. Which reflects the school's attitude that the lessons are still purely for exams :(

Anonymous said...

Happy Horse Year to you too! Actually I am quite terrified of secondary HCL L-A braved through it.

Those schools are really strange...after all they are conducting the lessons so what is so inconvenient to add in a few exempted students? Not as if the numbers are phenomenal.....or am I wrong?


monlim said...

QX: I think they know those Chinese-exempt kids can't keep up or are at a different standard and don't want to waste time focusing on them :(

Anonymous said...

Let me introduce you to the term "Twice Exceptional". There are many gifted children with learning disability. So if he is gifted in English and Maths, it doesn't mean that he will not have problems learning other things. Many autistic/asperger children fall into that category.

I agree that some parents just try to find ways and means to get exemption, but for others, it is no choice. So don't judge just because they had an exemption. You have no idea what they have gone through. MT is a unique feature in singapore. Everyone is expected to be bilingual which can be unrealistic. Not all children are capable of coping with two completely different languages.

monlim said...

Anon: I did say clearly that most of these exceptions are legitimate cases. And it's not just exceptional kids who have problems being bilingual. On the whole, biologically speaking, most kids find it difficult to master 2 languages.

There's no need to be defensive.

Mel said...

Came across this post as I was searching on how primary schools decide who gets 'chosen' or 'recommended' to do HCL in P5, as my daughter is currently in p4, in a SAP mission school.

As a student in a SAP school, she has had to do HCL since p1-4 (no choice) but it is clearly her Achilles heel, and we spend an inordinate and disproportionate amount of time and resources just studying for HCL.

I was all geared to make her drop HCL in p5 (although she did unexpectedly well for her HCL SA2 exam), but have been 'warned' my well-meaning friends that in this school, if you do not choose or opt to do HCL in P5 (you can 'force' your way into it, even if the teachers don't 'recommend' it), you automatically get relegated to the weaker classes.

She is above average in her Math and Sci, and excellent in her English, and I dread to think that she will be streamed to the academically weaker classes just because I choose not to do HCL at p5.

I am not chasing the extra points at PSLE (even though she is likely to go back to this same SAP secondary school) as my experience with my older son is that the extra effort is simply not worth it if Chinese is already your most challenging subject. It makes way more sense to spend more time/effort on NCL or any of your other 3 subjects and earn that extra 3 points.

It just disturbs me that my girl might be unduly prejudiced by being streamed to a class with academically weaker students simply because we have decided it is not to her benefit to do HCL at p5, especially when she is able to cope perfectly well with the other 3 (she sometimes tops her cohort for English).

Thanks for reading my rant!!

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