Monday, July 18, 2016

Reforms in PSLE scoring - good news for most

Finally, after much anticipation, MOE has released the new grading system for PSLE, to start in 2021 (meaning that those in p1 this year will be the first batch to be affected).

How it works is that scores for each subject will be calculated on 8 bands or Assessment Levels (ALs) as follows:
Source: MOE
Very simply, your PSLE score will be the total AL score for all four subjects. Eg. if you score AL2 for English, AL1 for Maths, AL 4 for Science and AL5 for Mother Tongue, your total score will be 12. It's very similar to how the 'O' levels are calculated, ie A1 for a subject = 1 point, B3 = 3 points and so on. For PSLE, the minimum score is 4, maximum 32.

The scores will then be used for secondary school posting. The better your score, the higher up your queue number is to select your school.  Which stream you will be eligible for depends on your total score as follows:

Source: MOE

A Step in the Right Direction

1) This banding scoring style is long overdue. From the time this move was first mooted in 2013, I've written about how the fine stratification of the PSLE t-score is meaningless and only serves to exacerbate the kiasu culture among parents and students, to chiong for every last mark. Banding sends the message that whether you score 91 or 99, you're considered equally high achieving in that subject.

Some people are curious as to why the AL bands don't all have a similar range of marks, eg. AL2-4 have 5-mark ranges while AL5 has a 10-mark range and AL6 a 20-mark range. After all, someone who scores 45 marks in a paper (a fail grade) can hardly be considered of the same achievement level as someone who scores 64 marks, even though they would both fall under AL6.

I've always felt that the PSLE is less of an ability gauge and more a school placement device. If every school was equally in demand, the PSLE would simply need to test if a student understood the fundamental concepts for each subject. If yes, then congrats! Off you go to secondary school. But that sort of Utopia exists only in Sesame Street and we're more like Harry Potter - everyone wants to go to Gryffindor and nobody wants Slytherin. Hence, my gut feel is that the ALs are carved out as such to facilitate school placement. In other words, whether you score 45 or 64 marks, it probably has less consequence on the range of schools available to you (because fewer people are vying for one or two particular schools).

2) Another major change in the scoring is the departure from t-scores to raw scores. I'd previously written in detail about the brutality of using the t-score in PSLE. The t-score calculates your score in relation to others'. While it's more efficient in determining placement for school posting, it encourages unhealthy competition because the more people you beat, the better you score. At that tender age when we're supposed to be nurturing kids, the t-score sends the message: To hell with helping my friends. Winner takes all. Kinda like the Hunger Games.

Raw scores, on the other hand, reflect individual effort and ability, not in comparison with one another. In other words, just do the best you can. However, banding based on raw scores means that many kids are likely to share similar scores, unlike in the past where your t-score can be differentiated down to decimal points. So MOE felt the need to impose three other criteria for school placement, in case of ties. These are (in that order):

2) Citizenship
3) Choice order of school
4) Balloting

I have to admit, I chuckled when I saw the last criterion. To me, that's like MOE subtly giving kiasu parents the middle finger. You see, I can just imagine how vexed MOE must feel, that every time they try to introduce a different initiative to create a more holistic system or level the playing field, some parents will find innovative and extreme ways to game the system. Take DSA, IP, niche schools, etc. By introducing balloting, getting into the school of your choice could come down to pure, dumb luck. Hah! Try getting around that!

Let the Angst Begin

As mentioned, I feel this change is long overdue and it's good overall. It's more holistic and kinder in its assessment of students' abilities. However, as with every announcement about changes in the education system, there is bound to be anxiety among parents, often due to the uncertainty.

One group would be the ones whose kids are consistently top performers and gunning for schools like RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH. Suddenly, a perfect score may not guarantee entry to these school. If these parents are protesting that it's "unfair to deprive a perfect scorer a place in a top school", may I be so bold as to suggest that the changes are necessary precisely because we need to change this sort of narrow-mindedness. For the better of society, we really need to move away from the prevalent mentality that 1) some schools are superior 2) because a kid beat another by 1 mark in an exam paper, he's somehow more entitled to go to that school.

A school is a conduit for learning. If a child is that good, he can do well and receive fantastic opportunities anywhere. In the past couple of decades, we've seen how the narrow funnelling of top scoring kids into a handful of schools have led to a proliferation of young adults who are completely oblivious that the world doesn't revolve around their middle-income families, paper distinctions, high end tuition centres and overseas stints. While this new scoring system may not completely solve this elitist mindset, it is more likely to spread the top scorers across a wider range of schools, allowing for better integration and socialisation.

Other parents might be concerned about how to choose schools, now that choice order is a consideration. For the first year at least, there will be a lot of uncertainty since there is nothing to refer to. If my child scores 12 points, which school should he pick as first choice? Or if my child scores 4 points, how many other kids scored the same? Should he opt for a less competitive school just to be safe? It's anyone's guess, really.

Even after the first year, we might not have a clear idea what the cut-off point for each school is. Since the points are now based on raw scores, not t-scores, the distribution of total scores for each year can vary quite a lot, depending on how easy or difficult the papers are. In fact, if MOE wants to play puppeteer, they can theoretically adjust the difficulty of the papers to affect the results. For example, set very difficult papers to restrict the number of 4-pointers or very easy papers to flood the market. Such manipulation will need to be handled with care though, because it could drastically affect the proportion of kids qualifying for the Express stream, for instance.

If they want to be extra sneaky, they can also "tweak" the raw scores, the way they've been doing for the current PSLE scoring. Whether you get an A* or A today is supposed to be based on raw scores (eg. 91 marks and above for A*) but in reality, the grades for each subject are based on a bell curve drawn by MOE. I'm wondering if they will resort to this down the road if the results deviate too much from projections. Anyway, these are all speculations. I suspect they will observe the workings of the system and adjust it as they go along.

Good...But Faster Can?

So yes, there are some kinks to work out and that's probably why MOE is taking so long to implement it. If I have one criticism of the initiative, it's that it will only be rolled out in 2021. Considering this was first announced in 2013, that's 8 years to implement what is a relatively straightforward system. MOE says they want to give people time to get used to the new system. I think they're being too kind. That's giving parents another 8 years to find ways to game the new system and chiong for DSA harder than ever. If it were up to me, I'd say rip off the band-aid and get over the pain quickly.

There are two gaping loopholes which I feel MOE needs to review quickly with this new announcement, namely the DSA scheme and MT exemption. While they were both implemented with good intentions and have their uses, again that hasn't stopped some parents from exploiting them purely to get into branded schools.

The stress that I commonly hear people complain about our education system is both a result of the system and parents' attitude. Changing the system itself isn't enough unless we change our mindsets, but at least we move away from rewarding and hence reinforcing kiasu-ism. For that, I would say we're on the right track.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Monika,
A sensible and well thought out post as usual.

I too am one of those few parents, who feel the change is for the better, and overdue. This direct and indirect stress kids undergo to at this young age because of the box we build around a few schools is totally unwarranted.

It does come a little too late for my children, but atleast it is changing.


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