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The PSLE aggregate score will be abolished in 2021. It is hoped that this will help to reduce the emphasis on examination results, competition between students, and exam stress — but will it? As a mother of two, I am not sure which of my children would actually have an easier time — my elder child, who is unaffected by the change, or my younger child, who will go through the new system.


The Two-edged T-score

The PSLE aggregate score is the sum of the T-scores (transformed scores) obtained by the student in English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics, and Science. Simply put, the T-score is calculated statistically by comparing the student’s raw score with that obtained by the rest of the cohort.

I would have thought that this is a fair way of determining a child’s results. If the exam paper was particularly hard that year, or if majority of the students tripped up over a poorly set question, everyone would not do as well in their raw scores. However, they would not be penalised for it because their T-scores would be moderated across the board.

On the other hand, the reverse would also hold true. If the paper was too easy that year and everyone had high raw scores, some students would end up with a lower T-score after moderation. I can imagine how this would make some parents unhappy if their child got a lower grade despite having done well for the paper.

The Arms Race

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The fact that the T-score is calculated by comparing a student with his peers has sparked an “arms race” between parents, schools and enrichment centres, with each one trying to out-prepare their child for the PSLE and out-do all the other children or schools. This results in students being taught increasingly challenging questions and plied with endless “top school papers”, with the stakes seemingly upped each successive year.

A quick scan of forum pages advertising tuition assignments turns up phrases such as “student is scoring in the 90s, tutor is required to help maintain the grade”. It is also not uncommon to find a student who is already scoring As having tuition for all four subjects in a bid to score A*s.

Schools are equally guilty of this “kiasu” (fear of losing out) mentality. I know of teachers who penalise students for minor variations in their Chinese characters — for strokes being slightly too curved, too straight, too long or too short. Their rationale being not wanting the children to lose marks due to poor hand writing in the PSLE.

I have also heard anecdotes of schools trying to explain their marking scheme to parents about how getting a particular punctuation mark wrong would cost their child half a mark while other punctuation marks would cost one mark.

I would have found this splitting of hairs hilarious if not for the grim realisation that my son could possibly be denied a place in a secondary school of his choice because of a wrong punctuation mark!

PSLE – Aggregate score = Less stress?

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With the removal of the aggregate score, grades will no longer be awarded relative to other students in the cohort. Instead, students will be awarded the grade so long as they have demonstrated an understanding of the subject. Hopefully, this will cool the current feverish obsession with having to score every half mark.

While removing the PSLE aggregate score could possibly reduce the sense that one is competing against one’s peers, I am still unsure whether this would translate to less stress or more down time for our children.

Will parents be satisfied with merely knowing their child’s grades or will this result in greater insecurity because each grade spans a range of marks? Instead of knowing the exact cut-off aggregate for entry into a secondary school, parents will now not know whether their child missed the mark by one or 10 points.

In addition, under the current system, a higher score in a stronger subject can help to make up for a lower score in a weaker subject and pull up the overall aggregate score. However, if the admission criteria to secondary schools is revised to consider only grades, would the child be under greater pressure to excel in every subject?

While some may feel that “the way we currently score the PSLE is too precise, and differentiates our students more finely then necessary”, in situations where the number of applicants to a secondary school exceeds the number of vacancies, comparing the aggregate score may be necessary in deciding which student to admit.

For example, if two students with identical grades of 3 A*s and 1A are vying for the last vacancy in the school, the one with the higher aggregate score would be admitted under the current system. Without an aggregate score to refer to, schools will need to compare the students’ other achievements, should there be a tie in the grades. Would this result in yet another arms race to excel in other areas such as CCAs?

A Parents’ Role

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While the move to scrap the PSLE aggregate score is well-intentioned, whether it is effective in reducing the over-emphasis on academic achievement and the resulting stress level of students depends largely on how it is implemented and parents’ response to it.

Regardless of which system my children find themselves in, I have been reminded by a father of two grown children that “in our quest for distinction, we should not drive our children to extinction”.

Therefore, rather than to drive my children through their academic years while constantly checking out the competition in the rear view mirror, I will encourage them to simply strive to give of their best. Instead of pushing them to memorise keywords in order to gain that extra half mark, I will ensure that they have a good understanding of the concepts taught and strong cognitive skills. After all, no one is going to bother with their PSLE scores a decade down the road, whereas a good grasp of concepts will provide a strong foundation for higher learning, and cognitive skills will serve them well through life.

 

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