Wednesday, 29 June 2016

PSLE: Switch to holistic assessment may add pressure on students

Government's plan to change current methods of assessment to reduce emphasis on academic achievement may be undermined by the fact that Singaporeans will adapt to compete on whatever terms they are given
By Lye Kok Leong, Published The Straits Times, 28 Jun 2016

The winds of change are blowing hard against the Singaporean obsession with examination results that deprives the young of their childhood and propagates despair in society's pressure-cooker environment.

In April, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that the aggregate score for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will be scrapped, and replaced with wider scoring bands from 2021. This will be similar to grading at O and A levels.

The current system involves working out a child's aggregate T-score based on component subject scores - English, Mother Tongue, mathematics and science - weighted against the range of scores within each cohort.

The MOE has also hinted that it will review the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme to realign it with its original intent, presumably to recognise achievements and talents in specific areas instead of general academic ability.

The DSA scheme has been criticised for evolving into a channel for students to secure places in sought-after Integrated Programme schools whose students bypass O levels. Some parents also try to boost their kids' chances by sending them for DSA preparation classes and enrichment programmes.

The PSLE review was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2013. It is meant to reduce the overemphasis on academic results and allow students more time and space to develop holistically.

Hence, the envisioned brave new world is one where the child can be "holistically assessed" from primary school all the way through to tertiary institutions. Presumably, this relieves the competitive pressure our children face within the school system.

Will it work?

Children go to school to learn and to grow into well-rounded individuals capable of critical thought and self-directed innovation more relevant to today's rapidly changing, technology- driven, globally connected world. Clearly, what Singapore desires of its future talent pool derives more from the Western philosophical "complete student" model, than the traditional East Asian "hardworking student" model of education.

Yet, against this ostensible rejection of obsessive competition, there is no acknowledgement of one fundamental fact - that Singapore is a competitive society. We compete for houses, cars, jobs, seats on MRT trains, the latest giveaways at fast-food restaurants.

It is in the very fabric of the country's culture, as it is in many other competitive societies globally. Strip away all the layers of philosophical, social and political advocacy, and the unvarnished kernel that remains is that Singaporeans will adapt to compete on whatever terms they are given.

Such is the very spirit that pushed the nation's forefathers onto these shores three or four generations ago. Would it therefore be surprising that holistic assessment increases, rather than relieves, pressure on students? Does "holistic" education correlate directly with holistic competition?


No policy can underestimate the power of the obsessive-compulsive, hyper-competitive parent. This acknowledgement is built into each policy pronouncement. The caricature of the kiasu parent "gaming the system" at every level, from pre-school through to university, is common knowledge.

The MOE's tweaks to primary school registration rules and secondary school posting rules are all designed to defeat the resourcefulness and ingenuity of parents who will pull every string and extract every advantage they can to get their kids into that one elite school.

That some have crossed the line into the realm of "abusing the system" and been publicly vilified is simply a stark reminder of the high-stakes, competitive system in which parents are constantly pushing against the boundaries of the regime. The parental obsession with elite schools is unlikely to wither away, no matter how often the "Every school is a good school" ideal is reiterated by policymakers.

A prototypical parent's first experience with "holistic assessment" would be when her child reaches the Primary 6 critical-year juncture.

Peer pressure to participate in the DSA-Sec scheme - an admission exercise allowing secondary schools to select some Primary 6 students for Secondary 1 based on their achievements and talents before PSLE results are released - derives from two sources. Precocious 12-year-olds clamour to try because all their friends in school are going for it. Parents, conditioned to endless strategising when it comes to getting their kids into the right schools since kindergarten, exert immense pressure on each other to give their children a no-downside, pre-emptive chance to gain admission to an elite school.

Recent policy changes thrusting the concept of discretionary admissions into public consciousness would, arguably, increase, and not decrease, this peer pressure. Yet, what is conspicuously missing is an understanding of the basic mechanics of "holistic assessment".

How does a candidate project her talent, dedication and social consciousness in an application? Almost universally, institutions here and abroad use some combination of standardised (aptitude/ reasoning) tests, personal portfolio/statements, and interviews to screen and select candidates. Despite protestations from admissions officers, all these elements require skill and technique in their conception and assembly.

When schools do not teach their students how to skilfully create, project and articulate the personas that admissions officers are looking for, parents seek out commercial vendors who can gain an immeasurable advantage for their kids.

Astute parents understand that the ability to craft strong personal brand statements which seize the imagination of an admissions officer sifting through a sea of sterling candidate applications is a skill that will bring their kids all the way to postgraduate school.

Forward-looking parents know that training kids in the art of interviewing wins that coveted civil service scholarship, internship or top job.

From a personal parental perspective, I view "holistic assessment" with admittedly cynical trepidation. I fear the uncertainty of a system where a child feels the need to become competitive beyond grades.

How do I tell my child in pre-school to prepare for a world where she is expected not just to be the master of her academic subjects, but also to outperform 90 per cent of her peers in sailing, or ballet, or whatever "talent" I must discover, nurture, and groom in the next couple of years before it becomes too late to train her to the requisite level? I wonder whether pushing a child to be master of the academic domain plus a just-in-case discretionary admission talent domain is too much for a five-year-old.

Deep in my heart, I know that "holistic assessment" will drive parents to add "talent development" to students' workloads, instead of realising the policy goal of reducing the pressure and stress faced by students.

Most of all, I wonder how fair and meritocratic it is for an educational system to systematically reward those who have spent $50,000 pursuing music as a "talent" from age four, when the educational system itself offers students no violins, no violin teachers, and no access to the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) grading certificates schools ask for.

The writer is co-founder of a tutorial school and the author of Decoding DSA: The Ultimate Parental Guide To Success In Direct School Admission (2016). He is a father of four children aged five to 13.

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