Monday, 26 November 2012

Modify the PSLE, don't abolish it

There are ways to cut stress, and exam does help to place students in appropriate streams
By Lee Wei Ling, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2012

There has been much debate in recent weeks about the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). It seems to be an extremely stressful examination not just for students but also for their parents.

When I took my PSLE in 1966, it was not in the least stressful. I was sure I would pass the examination, especially since most of the questions were multiple-choice ones. Even if one did not know the answer to the questions, one could, by a process of logical elimination, have a high chance of hitting upon the correct answer.

Indeed, the Primary 6 end-of-year examination at my own school caused me more stress than did the PSLE. As my father was planning to attend my Primary 6 graduation ceremony, I was determined to top my class. By contrast, I did not care if I topped the PSLE - for the good reason that in those days, nobody knew who topped the examination. All we were told was whether or not we had passed the PSLE. I passed; no angst over ranking; end of story.

I cannot remember if my PSLE score determined which secondary school I attended. I wanted to stay on at Nanyang where I had close friends, and it never crossed my mind that I would not qualify for Nanyang Girls' High School.

At that time, Nanyang Primary and Nanyang Girls' High were not among the elite schools in Singapore. Their students came from a cross-section of society. My friends included the children of hawkers as well as of millionaires. Differences in wealth never bothered us. That I think is a good thing.

Now Nanyang is considered an elite school. Some parents move house to be within 1km of the school so their children have a better chance of gaining admission to Nanyang, thus raising property prices in the area.

I view Nanyang's elite status today with some regret. Perhaps my PSLE score would not have qualified me for acceptance to the present Nanyang Girls' High School. But would that have been such a bad thing?

I may have been posted to a non-elite, neighbourhood school, made friends with people from all walks of life, and I would have been perfectly happy. I knew even as a child that I was materially privileged, but I also knew that I had done nothing to earn that privilege.

That the PSLE now causes so much stress is largely because the results are presented not only as grades for each subject but also as a T-score - an aggregate score derived from comparison with the scores of all the other candidates. The T-score feels like a psychological threat because admission to a school of one's choice is decided mainly, although not solely, by it.

Another source of stress is that the PSLE now includes questions that require a written response, not just multiple-choice questions. Parents claim too that the examination questions are now much more difficult than when they took the examination.

Problem sums, especially, pose a serious difficulty. Children with a weak command of English struggle both to understand the question and to do the maths.

There are ways to make the differentiation of the results less precise, hence less stressful. Currently, posting to secondary schools is based on the aggregate T-score taken to two decimal places! If we could have a system where candidates are divided into bands (for example, between 130 and 140), with those scoring above a certain range (say 250 or 260) corresponding to the top decile of students, there would be no need to differentiate them further.

For the purpose of posting, all students within the same band would stand an equal chance of getting into particular schools. If there were more applicants than places available in those schools, entry might be based on balloting. Such a procedure would have the advantage of spreading out talented students among a larger group of schools than now.

At present, academically strong students are accepted into a limited number of elite schools. They tend to come from middle-class or upper middle-class homes. As a result, they are unaware that many Singaporean students come from poorer homes, have to do housework and may also have to help out at hawker stalls or do other odd jobs to supplement the family income.

I agree with Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat's decision not to highlight the top PSLE scorer of the year. Given this move, perhaps the practice of having a few extra difficult questions to determine who are the "best" candidates - but which leaves so many good but not top-class candidates demoralised - might be abolished. The stress of the PSLE will be considerably lessened thus.

Still, I believe the PSLE serves a purpose. First, the T-score is an objective measure to help place students in a variety of schools according to their academic ability. Second, it also helps us channel students into the stream most appropriate for them - Express, Normal (Academic), Normal (Technical) and so on.

Yes, the examination will cause some stress no matter what we do. But a little stress is not a bad thing. After all, we will all encounter some stress some time in our lives. We might as well get used to it while we are young.

Unless we have encountered some hardship and learnt to overcome it, we would find it difficult to cope with the vicissitudes of fate. For all able-bodied Singaporean men, there is national service, a necessity to guarantee Singapore's security. If a child is overwhelmed by PSLE, can he survive NS?

In sum, I believe the PSLE needs some modification, but it certainly should not be abolished.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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