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  • Writer's pictureEvery Child

3 Facts about PSLE Every Singaporean Should Know

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

How does PSLE in its current form benefit your child? If no-one, including MOE, has been able to clearly explain to you the benefits of PSLE, it's because there aren’t any!

PSLE is just a hurdle every parent in Singapore knows they have to cross, regardless of whether their child is ready for it or not. It has no basis in the latest science around learning, testing or child development.

Dr Goh Keng Swee, former 2nd DPM and former Minister for Education, in a speech at ACS, 1967

Is PSLE needed to check the level of learning of children at the end of primary school?

There are now many, many better and more accurate ways to check learning at this age, including some of the following examples:

Computer Adaptive Testing, in which questions are guided by the level of understanding demonstrated in previous questions, so e.g. if a child is getting a lot of questions correct, subsequent questions will grow harder to hone in on their true level of understanding. Similarly, if they are getting a lot of questions wrong, subsequent questions will be easier.

This allows the test to more accurately and quickly gauge what level the child is performing at. It is also less confidence-destroying for the child, who for example does not see the 2 traditionally impossible-to-solve questions at the end of every PSLE Maths paper, unless they are one of the rare few likely to be able to solve them.

● Testing at multiple timepoints throughout P6, using shorter tests, in multiple formats including multiple-choice questions, short written answers, individual or group projects, presentations, class discussions, hands-on challenges, etc.

This takes away the stress and anxiety of facing a series of long, high-stakes exams in one shot, and allows one to gauge a child’s average performance, not the result of one good or bad day. It also does not penalise children who have trouble focusing or writing for long periods, a still common issue among 11-12 year olds.

(We discuss these in more detail in the blog ‘6 Better Ways To Assess Learning than PSLE’.)

Is PSLE needed to sort children into secondary schools based on ability?

As a one-time, long duration, high-stakes and high-stress exam for 11-12 year olds, PSLE is unlikely to give an accurate reflection of a child’s current or future ability. It is a very blunt sorting tool that may have worked a few decades ago but is not relevant anymore. It discounts the very real fact that 11-12 year olds (and even us adults!) can be:

● Very good at one subject and not so good at another;

● Held back by their inability to focus for long periods, read through long passages, or write long answers;

● Held back by their inability to stay calm long enough to demonstrate their true level of understanding (no one’s brain works well when they are worried/ nervous/ anxious!);

● Dealing with familial, social, financial or health issues during that period that affect their focus, energy or motivation; or

● Just having a bad day!

“As streaming formally begins early (in Singapore) – at age 12 – late bloomers are at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in some other advanced countries.”

Assoc Prof John Donaldson, SMU (Singapore Management University) School of Social Sciences

The use of PSLE as a sorting tool also does not account for the fact that most parents rely on additional tuition to train their children for PSLE. This turns it into a game of who can spend the most money on tuition. This game, as we all know, can start as young as preschool/ P1.

We should also ask why we need to sort children into different schools at the age of 11-12? We have already removed those with the highest learning needs into SPED schools, and those with the highest IQ (supposedly) into the GEP. Shouldn’t everyone else be able to live, learn and play together in the same school?

Or taking it a step further, if we really claim to want an inclusive society shouldn’t everyone else be required to learn how to live, learn and play together in the same school?

Schools can always sort children into different groups for different subjects to make teaching more efficient without requiring them to actually be in separate classes, let alone separate schools. Many secondary schools are already introducing this through MOE’s Subject Based Banding initiative, which will be mainstreamed fully by 2024.

A handful of secondary schools who want to remain selective can still have their own competitive entrance exams, or continue to use PSLE if they want. But there does not seem to be any good reason to feed the vast majority of Singaporean children into this blunt and rather damaging sorting machine.

MP Denise Phua is one of many who have clearly and repeatedly advocated for this “sacred cow” of PSLE to be slaughtered:

"Removing the PSLE will free up substantive PSLE preparation time which is often hot-housing time to crunch a few selected academic subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science and Chinese, which do not reflect a holistic education.”
"Abolishing the PSLE will provide real space to prepare students to become the curious, agile and more self-directed learner that the future economy needs."
It will also reduce the "self-inflicted pressure and stress in students, families and teachers who have to choose between educating, learning or teaching to the test".

Is PSLE something that 11-12 year olds in other good education systems go through?

No, it isn’t. No other country with a good education system has its first high-stakes exam at such a young age. This graph shows the ages at which the 25 top performing countries in the PISA rankings have their first high-stakes exam. Only Singapore has it younger than 15 years:

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