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Are our children being tested too soon and their future decided too early?

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By S. Bala

Source: TNP

The primary school system formally ends with a high-stake national examination (Primary School Leaving Examination) which streams the pupils based on their ability in four core subjects. Those who do well in the examination can go to the better secondary schools. It is a major milestone, affecting a child’s future. The intensely competitive, highly stressful examination impacts on students and their parents alike.

Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was moved to complain against it. In his National Day Rally speech, he said:

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“Parents think PSLE determines a student’s future; hence there is tremendous stress as the whole family takes the PSLE. Today, parents ask one another, ‘What is your child’s T-score?’ I don’t think this is healthy at age of 12.”

Unfortunately, this is reality. A rose by any other name is a rose. Whether we use T-scores or wider band grades, will the examination be any less grueling?  Isn’t it time we realized that 12-year-olds should not be subjected to a national placement examination. The fault lies not in the way the assessment is made but in the assessment itself. The use of T-scores is just a statistical tool to standardize scores across subjects so that a student’s performance is weighed against his or her peers.

Mr Lee mentioned the use of a grade system to score PSLE, but how is this going to ease the tension of parents who perceive the PSLE as a crossroad to either a bright or a dim future? Do the ‘O’ levels or ‘A’ levels cause pupils any less stress? Whether we use T-scores or grades, the undue stress does not stem from the scoring system but from policies shaped by global trends that have resulted in a competitive and stressful system.

If PSLE is not abolished, then the government should consider changing the mode of assessment for PSLE as the current mode is a mechanistic and technical process. Ironically, what influences the students is not the teaching but the assessment system. They concentrate on what they are likely to be assessed on rather than learning itself.

Assessment should complement learning and should be aligned with the learning activities.

The Ministry of Education’s vision of ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’ was a move to meet the challenges of the future through creativity and innovation. It promoted a shift from “quantity teaching” to “quality teaching” which translates to less rote learning.

However, if learning is geared towards creativity and innovation, then why should assessments be made primarily through written tests? Not all students learn or understand the study materials the same way, yet a major examination such as PSLE uses this method to determine placement in a secondary school?

A new scoring system will not necessarily reduce stress as PSLE in itself is a national placement examination which is norm-referencing – fitting pupils to a rank list. Statistical moderation processes such as T-scores are used to standardize students’ scores to fit a normal distribution. The fault clearly does not lie in the scoring but in the assessment type. The best thing to do would be to abolish PSLE.

Photo courtesy of TNP

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