Monday, January 25, 2016

When students in top schools don't make the grade

When the 'O' level results were released this year, there was some hoo-ha when the Middle Ground reported that only 1 out of 10 students in RI's pioneer 'O' level class scored well enough to make it to JC. Many people were in shock, including the students, it would seem - RI? How could this have happened?

My reaction is: this was no surprise at all.

I've always been baffled by the intrinsic belief of some parents that because a high percentage of top school students score well, you will automatically score well if you go to a top school. It doesn't work that way. That's like saying if you hang out with a whole bunch of rich people, you will also become rich. So much logic.

Whether you are likely to turn in good academic results depends on a few factors:

1) Your natural talent or aptitude, which is largely genetic
2) Your work ethic, ie how hard and how well you study
3) How much help you get, eg whether you have tuition, good teachers, father-mother help, etc.

Of course there are other factors like luck, performance during exams etc, but I won't get into those as I think they play a smaller part. In general, how well a student performs in school is largely dependent on those three factors. Students in the elite schools tend to have a good combination of all three. That's why they do well. It's that simple.

However, in every top school, you will have a handful of students who do not perform quite as well academically. The group who entered via sports or arts Direct School Admissions (DSAs), for instance. Many of these kids enter the school far below the cut-off-point (COP), sometimes 30 or 40 points below. While the PSLE t-score is not definitive, it does offer a pretty good indication of general ability. If a student is lacking in Factor 1) and his Factor 2) is compromised because he has to commit a lot of time to his CCA due to DSA, he is already at a huge disadvantage when it comes to performing academically. It's the brutal truth.

I don't know if all the kids who scored badly in the 'O' level class were from DSAs. There could also be students who entered RI due to very high PSLE scores but somehow along the way, slipped and were unable to catch up.

Being in a branded school doesn't automatically mean you get a leg up in grades. In fact, it's often the opposite. Based on my own experience with my two kids, branded schools actually teach less and test more. When they teach, they go very quickly and assume knowledge of basic concepts. Many teachers of branded schools are simply unaccustomed to dealing with less academically-inclined children and much less sympathetic to failing grades (when Lesley-Anne flunked sec 3 maths, her teacher just assumed she wasn't trying hard enough). If you struggle to understand the fundamentals, tuition is often the only recourse for these kids. In contrast, Andre's teachers in a neighbourhood school go through concepts more slowly and hold more extra classes for weaker students.

This whole saga with the 'O' level class at RI is due to the way the Integrated Programme (IP) has evolved. When IP was introduced some years ago, the assumption was that the top PSLE scorers would naturally be JC-bound, so the through-train system made sense - kids in schools like RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH would bypass the 'O' levels and go straight to JC, saving them the hassle of preparing for another national exam. After all, these schools attract the top 5% of kids. Shouldn't be a problem, right?

Except there was a problem. Kids are human beings. They don't always perform according to statistical projections. Plus these schools took in some kids way below the COPs, as mentioned above. The result was that some kids in these schools just couldn't keep up, for whatever reason. The schools then faced a huge dilemma - what to do with these students? They couldn't in good conscience promote a student who failed practically every subject, let alone allow him or her to enter JC. So in the past, these kids would either be retained, transfer to an overseas school or transfer to a secondary school which offered 'O' levels.

The worst case scenarios were the sec 4 kids who couldn't make the grade - it was too late to transfer schools and study a completely different syllabus for the 'O' levels. What route could they take then? Poly? Drop out and take 'O' levels as a private candidate? Graduate with just a PSLE certificate? It was an untenable situation. I say this with first-hand knowledge because Lesley-Anne was from a branded secondary school and during her time, it was pure IP, with no 'O' level classes. There were students who couldn't make the grade and quietly transferred out to different schools, whichever would take them. At the sec 4 graduation ceremony, some students went up on stage to receive a fake scroll, bitterly knowing there was a chance they might not graduate. It's sobering and horrible and nobody talks about it.

So these top schools which previously didn't have 'O' level classes, came to realise that they were not doing right by these students. They had no choice but to open up 'O' level classes for the kids who really couldn't cope. It was with good intentions. However, it's laughable to call schools like RI "dual-track" schools because they're not. A dual-track school is one like ACSI, Victoria/Cedar or SJI where there are two distinct tracks from the start - IP and 'O' levels - and students can move from one track to another at sec 3, depending on their performance.  In these schools, teachers are trained and curriculum designed specifically for these two very different tracks and there is a sizeable student enrolment in both.

In schools like RI however, the 'O' level track is not a real option but a last resort for the students whom the teachers feel are not equipped to continue with the IP. In fact, many kids may be borderline cases but the schools often try to keep everyone in the IP (it's that or admit that the IP is a sham). The 'O' level class is a no-choice situation to at least try and give the failing students a decent qualification. That's why there were only 10 RI students in this class, out of a cohort of maybe 400 or so (I don't know the exact numbers).

In other words, the 10 RI students were already struggling academically. That's why they were in the 'O' level class. I also wonder how familiar the teachers were with the 'O' level syllabus as they were all trained for the IP curriculum. Was it any surprise then that the students didn't do well in the 'O' levels? It's not fair to compare their performance with the ACSI or SJI 'O' level cohort because the circumstances are completely different.

So what's the lesson in this whole saga? I loathe to add to the very judgmental "oh, RI is falling from their pedestal!" sentiment. I feel sorry for the students. They probably feel badly enough, first at being downgraded to the 'O' level class, then having to deal with the results. They don't need to be known as "the RI kids who failed".

For me, if there's anything to be learnt, it's this: don't get starry-eyed by the brand name of a school. Schools only share their glory-makers, their top-scorers, their Ivy-league goers. They never tell you about the ones who don't make it. And there are ALWAYS those who don't. Every cohort, every school, not just RI. People don't hear about them, except in whispers, because the parents and students are likely too ashamed to advertise their situation. And it suits all parties involved - the students, the parents and the school, never to speak of them. 

Getting into a school is the starting point, not the destination. Otherwise, it's like thinking you've seen the Eiffel Tower in Paris when all you did was board the plane at Changi. If your child is not of that calibre or suited for a highly competitive environment, getting into a top school can have disastrous outcomes. It is not a guaranteed route to success.

Nobody thinks it will happen to them but guess what, it always happens to someone. Know your children and ask yourself if they will truly thrive in that sort of environment. Don't let them be victims of your own ambitions.


Julie Quah said...

Excellent piece, and very accurately painting the real situations. I am a teacher (though no longer in branded school anymore), in the thick of things you mention most of the time, advising unrealistic parents on choices they are making for their kids. Sadly, the kids are usually not i the picture in the decision making process.

Joo said...

If we think carefully enough, it is the school which bears primary and ultimate responsibility for deciding whether to admit a child or not through the DSA process. The parents may insist or give all the "correct" answers for the school to admit the child. But it is the school who makes the final call to admit the child.

Sometimes (or is it oftentimes??), a school may choose to admit a DSA student, say, through sports, mainly to bring sporting glory to the school DESPITE knowing very well that the student is academically weak and is very likely to struggle with the fast-paced learning environment and competitive nature of academic pursuit in the branded/top-academic schools. To these schools, I'll like to pointedly say that because you place the school's needs above the child's needs, you have done a grave injustice to the child. And surely, this cannot and must not be the mindset of any educators or educational institutions.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

Kudos on a wonderful piece. This post will hopefully benefit many parents and students who are planning to enter the good schools via DSA (since the COP has been strictly enforced from 2015).

Well-performing schools pride themselves on being tops in academics, sports, arts, music, whatever. Hence, DSA (Sports/Arts/Music) is basically a contract between the school and the candidate. Both sides are required to fulfil his part of the deal - the school admits you so long as you meet the Express cut-off (never mind if your score may be way off the COP) and the child needs to bring back the medals and the awards for the school during the time you are enrolled.

There are indeed students who are super achievers - good at every single thing.
But those are the exception rather than the norm.

Your advice to parents to think hard whether the child can keep up with the combined rigor of studies and DSA obligations in a well-performing school is very sound and timely. =)


Audrey Layhoon Giam said...

Ageee with the writer.
Just please value your children for what they are.

Singaporeans should be careful what they ask for because the authorities are listening. Parents asked for more non-academic assessment for entry into top schools. They said, it is not fair that you take in too many students based on academuic grades alone. They said, my son is good at non-academic areas. Like sports or music. And the MOE heard. And brought in DSA (Sports) and DSA (Music).

On academics, kids get admitted to RI or HCI or NYGHS at 260 points. At DSA, they can get admitted at 200 points.

The schools support and push as many on the through-train track as possible, on to take the A Levels and then to university.

Those they think cannot do the A Levels, they create an O Level Class, so that these students do not end up with just the PSLE certificate at 18 years old.

Parents, your child is not a grade. Do not value them for their grades or only because thay are in a perceived top school. Every school IS a good school. If only parents believed that.

I am rather sad that DSA is what even more parents are pushing for. If a child is stressed with Eng, Math, Science and Mother Tongue, he will be even more stressed with Eng, Math, Science, Mother Tongue, VIOLIN, SWIMMING, HOCKEY...and even GOLF.

[I dread the day the MOE introduces DSA(Leadership) or DSA (Empathy) or DSA(Good Conduct). Kids can't even fool around in class anymore).

Please give them a break, okay?

Alicia Jade said...

A very well written article that describes the predicament of children in branded school. I know it well because my child was one of the victim. The difference was she entered the school fully qualified academically and it was her choice (against my will) that she went to the school. By sec 2 she dragged going to school and started having ideas of getting out of the school. Because she spent 50% of her time either in CCA or waiting in full assembly getting their attire checked. Most of the time they were told to refer to elearning platform. I made a few trips to school last year trying to understand what was wrong. She was stressed, miserable and down with flu every other week. By the end of Sec 3, she was branded by the school as hopeless. Yet her O level Chinese result turned out to be a B3 even though she failed miserably in school exams. They were told all subjects were purposely made more difficult to pull up the standard. I understood that about a class worth of students made other plans end of the term. I chose to let her drop out as I reckoned after the conversation with the 2 Ps and they claimed that they have finished the syllabus and sec 4 is basically revision. How did they crammed 2 years studies into 1 year? I don't know. But since they said that they have finish teaching, I don't see the need of having my daughter going there to be stressed day after day, being free child labour in the name of AVA rehearsals after rehearsals at the whims and fancies of many other CCA teacher's who took AVA students for granted. I brought up the issue to the principal and he just shrug off by saying that he was not aware. Disappointed with this high flier guy who have his career plan paved in the name of having the highest single digit O level score this year.

After leaving the school, my daughter no longer sick. Not a single day of flu nor fever nor stomach. Unfortunately, the souvenir that she took away from the school is horrible backache which I am still trying to get it sorted. But she is happy and so am I. People were shocked with my decision, but I rather have a private candidate or even a slower learning daughter then a sickly one, for all you know she might snap and it will be irrecoverable. The only regret was I did not try harder to stop her from entering the school but I do not regret that she has left.

Anonymous said...

I think that's why MOE is enforcing the cut off points more strictly this time round.

But then there's still DSA... I have heard many stories of students being used up for the school's glory and tossed away when they threaten the school's results.

These schools should be shamed.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry. DSA through leadership etc already exists.

It's just that schools usually don't bother, because students with these portfolios don't actually have much to contribute to the school (and the principal's profile). And even more so when these skills are pretty fungible, easily replaceable by students who entered normally.

A skilled soccer player with a killer dribble though...

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