Tuesday, October 2, 2012

PSLE - let this be the final word.

There is a great deal in the newspapers and online forums about the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Some want it abolished or revamped, citing undue stress on the twelve-year-olds who sit the exam.  There are a few reasonable voices that call for the PSLE to remain as the most reliable gauge that we have of a student's ability.  It may not be perfect, nothing is, but it's probably the most effective qualifying exam, or placement exam, as it is sometimes aptly called, for students to gain admission to a secondary school.  What's truly great about this examination is its absolute fairness and impartiality.  It is a strong testimony to the government's commitment to meritocracy, fairness and equity and in no area is fair play more important to the people than in the area of education for their children.  The PSLE is the government's assurance of total impartiality in this area of great importance to the people.

The PSLE is an exam that's designed to divide the student population into different categories according to their intellectual capability. There is a special group and this consists of students who are the top 3% in the exam in each year.  This group is given a scholarship by the government for the next 6 years of secondary school and Junior College education.   This top 3% is of course given the secondary school of their choice and honestly, who can complain about that?

As a rule of thumb these top students usually go to the No. 1 school in this country.  Every Singaporean knows perfectly well which school that is.  That's the school with the highest cut-off point at the qualifying PSLE.  It's not surprising that this school can accelerate its teaching way above any other schools.  This is also the school that places Singapore in a prominent position on the world map of academia; it's our showcase school to tell the world how effective our education is.  When it comes to academic competitions, this school garners all the medals (OK, not all; it does share these Olympiad medals with another school which is a dedicated school for maths and science but that's about it).  The Wall Street Journal once called this school the "Ivy League machine" because it's the single school outside of the USA that feeds the most number of students into Ivy League universities.  Just last year, Prof Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford said, "Raffles is Oxford's top feeder school - RI sends more students to Oxford than any other public school within and outside of England, more than even Eton".

It's not just in academia that this school shines.  In the recent Youth Olympics, this school won more medals than any other schools in the country, more medals than even the sports school in Singapore.

How did Singapore manage to create a school that can trump the rest of the world in virtually everything?  Last year, when I read that Singapore came in tops in the World Schools Debating Championship in Dundee, I checked to see which schools the Singaporean participants were from and yes, last year they were all from this same school.  Hey, we are not even talking about passing examinations.  How does this school win every medal in one clean sweep?  It all boils down to the PSLE.  Singapore has stumbled upon a winning formula with this exam that acts as a filter to channel students into schools that best suit their needs according to their abilities and learning capabilities.  The most effective teaching method must be one in which you group students of the same calibre together.  It's very hard for a teacher to pitch the level of his lessons if you have a mixed bag in a classroom.  The effectiveness of the PSLE as a gauge of a student's abilities and academic strength is confirmed many times over by the huge success of our top schools on the world stage.

Why would anybody want to do away with a system that is open, transparent, incorruptible and the most equitable measure of a student's worth and eligibility for a secondary school of his choice?

Someone suggests in today's Straits Times forum page that the schools be given some leeway to accept students who might not be good at everything.  He argues that some students may be good at mathematics but they may be weak in languages and so they won't do so well in the PSLE.  But that's precisely what the PSLE is for.  It's to weed out students who, though good at a subject or two, exhibit weaknesses in some other subjects.  The top 3% who are enrolled into the No. 1 school in the country can't afford to have lopsided strengths.  There is no room for weaknesses of any kind if you want to be in the top school.  Is that so unfair?  Of course not.  In all fairness, the top places must only be given to the best.  That's not just justice, that's decency.

But the current system does cater for students who are weak in some areas and so they may not shine in the PSLE.  Students who are good at mathematics and the sciences can always apply for a place in the dedicated science school which, as I have said earlier, shares with RI some of the International Olympiad medals in the sciences and mathematics. Currently, all schools consider many other areas in a student's achievement which is why we have the Direct School Admission system in all secondary schools.  Students who excel in various aspects (whether academic or otherwise) are accepted into secondary schools even before they take the PSLE.

I cannot help feeling that we sometimes take a dog-in-the-manger approach.  If we are certain there's no hope our children will be among the top in the PSLE and get accepted into the top schools, we might as well clamour for there to be no top schools.  Let all schools open their doors to students regardless of academic achievements.  It doesn't matter if we get mediocrity all round and there are no top schools to hone the abilities and talents of top students because our kids aren't among them anyway.  I'm sure very few would adopt such an approach; it's an approach that will be the ruin of this country.   We have achieved much with meritocracy for our guide and to throw it all away is madness.

Since I keep mentioning meritocracy, I should add this last point about Singapore's No. 1 school. Enrolment in the school is strictly based on merit and there are no back-door entrances.  We all know of a particular school that's always asking for donations and students who don't meet the cut-off PSLE score are permitted into the school on payment of a large donation but that's not one of our top schools, not by a long shot.  Our finest schools can't possibly go down that route and they certainly don't.  Entrance into these schools such as RI and HC are strictly based on merit and the PSLE score is the final arbiter of a student's real merit.  I know of a brilliant boy who is the son of a lorry driver who is given a place in this top school on the strength of his remarkable PSLE results while the son of a very important Government man was rejected, again on the basis of the PSLE results.  Frankly, I know of no other country that can boast of such an unflagging commitment to meritocracy and fair play.  Those who ask for the PSLE to be scrapped really don't know what they are asking for.

Today is the final day of the PSLE for this year.  I wish all candidates the best of luck.  And in the spirit of meritocracy, may everyone get precisely what he or she deserves, based on nothing else but pure merit.


  1. I don't think you realise this yet, but students are now no longer pursuing excellence in academic knowledge to pass the PSLE. They are now pursuing techniques to pass the exams.

  2. Thanks, Clarence, for your comment. I know what you mean but I don't think it's that simple. The rigorous nature of the PSLE is such that it's practically impossible to learn the techniques of acing the exam without at the same time acquiring such an incredible amount of knowledge and skills in the intellectual arena. I'm not talking about merely passing the exam. I don't think students are bothered about passing the exam. They want to be among the top 3%.

    Just take the mathematics paper for example. Every year, we see complaints in the newspapers that the Maths paper is way too difficult. Some Maths teachers can't even answer some of the questions. What do these tough questions tell us? You can't prepare to excel in the PSLE by just learning the techniques. You can't just learn the ropes; you've got to delve deep into each subject, have a firm foundation and build on it.

    Of course if it's merely passing the exam, I suppose one can learn the technique to do so but a mere pass doesn't get the student anywhere.

  3. I would like to point out that for the 2011 WSDC team in Dundee, not all were from RI. One of the members, Ng Liki, was from HCI.

    1. Thanks, Kuan Hian! I read about the team a year ago and I tried to do a quick search just to confirm that I was totally right but I could not seem to find the details of the team online. I'm grateful to you for setting the record right. It just goes to prove my point: I specifically referred to both RI and HC as top schools in Singapore. The PSLE is an excellent gauge of how well students will generally perform academically.

  4. The Singaporeans who really make an impact on the world like Sim Wong Hoo etc do not come from brand name schools or do well in the PSLE! The PSLE is a great test for determining who will be best at solving theoretical problems in maths, science, english and a second language. It does not predict success in any other field on a global scale and is perhaps the reason why Singapore has no Nobel prize winners???

    1. Thanks for your comment. I did not say a word about "brand name" schools. They don't mean a thing to me. There is one school I can think of that people who aren't really knowledgeable about schools have a high regard for. This school used to be good but it has all the makings of a loser which it is now. I could write a book and call it "How to Ruin a School" and all I have to do is to give the recipe from this school. But there are people who still think well of this school and in a sense, many would still consider it a "brand name" school. In my post above, I was talking about "top schools" and "our finest schools". I mentioned particularly three schools as top schools. I also brought up the fact that two of them have clinched No. 1 world prizes in Maths and Physics. I did mention obliquely that ruined school but only in contrast with the top schools. So, no, I don't think much of brand names. I do my own research.

      I don't know much about Sim Wong Hoo but I've just googled him and he had his secondary school before 1975. I'm not sure if they had the PSLE then or how seriously students took the exam in the early years but this is irrelevant. Anecdotal evidence galore can be obtained about how this brilliant person failed a school exam but that doesn't tell us anything. Stories have circulated that Einstein failed Maths in school but nobody is going to argue that we should scrap Maths tests in order to produce an Einstein. If you do a search into all Nobel laureates, you will most certainly see that the majority of them have high academic qualifications from the best universities and they probably have a high IQ as well. Stories of a school failure made good are of course more interesting and inspiring and these are the ones that will make it to the headlines and get all our attention.

      I don't really get your point about the fact that no Singaporean has won the Nobel Prize. Are you saying that the PSLE is to blame and so we should scrap it? But in my post above, I talked about the top 3% in the PSLE. We still have the remaining 97% which of course includes those who flunk the PSLE. If your point is that those who do well in the PSLE don't win the Nobel, we have the remaining 97% and they haven't won the Nobel either. I would place my bets with the top 3% - that if there is going to be a Nobel winner in Singapore, he or she will more likely be someone from the top 3%.

      The Singapore Government is extremely far-sighted. It created NUS High School of Maths and Science which allows students with a bent for the sciences to develop their interest and this is the point I wanted to make when addressing complaints by people who say the PSLE does not consider those who have a special ability in the sciences but not languages. I have examined the syllabuses in that school and I have seen how the school is structured under that great mathematician, Dr Hang Kim Hoo and I can say the Government is on the right track. The school was only started not long ago (2005 or so) and we have already seen how it clinches International Olympiad competitions. Lim Jek, a student of NUS High who was singled out for special mention by the PM in his National Day Speech, is now considered the world's No. 1 in Maths. Now, if you are talking about the Nobel Prize, surely you have to concede that in Singapore, it's far more likely for Lim Jek to win the Nobel Prize for Maths than a PSLE dropout?

      Nobody will ever say that the PSLE is a great test for determining future Nobel laureates. That's not what the test is designed for. But what I'm prepared to say is it's far more likely for the future Nobel laureate to be among the top 3% in the PSLE and I think I'm wholly in sync with the law of probability here.

  5. I agree with your argument. But I feel that the problem now is society's mindset. We have been constantly fed with the idea of meritocracy that it has made Singaporeans so competitive. And sadly, the rat race to become successful has been constrained to the fields of academic excellence, such as medicine, law and engineering. Although the Government has been trying to push the idea that going to a "lower-end" secondary school or junior college or polytechnic does not hinder one from becoming successful, it doesn't seem to be working too well. Most still have that mindset that getting into a good school is a must.

    Singapore's problem of inequity also comes into the picture here. Most of that top 3% you keep mentioning come from the higher income households. The tuition enterprise is growing exponentially because they have proved that they are be able to push students to the next level in terms of grades. Parents, being parents, are attracted to the prospects of sending their children for tuition in order to push them ahead of their peers. Of course, if you take basic economics, when demand rises, prices rise. Coming back to the context of primary school, supplementary lessons like Kumon and Tianxia are places where parents also want to send their kids for that extra boost. But fees pile up and only those who can afford it are allowed these luxuries. To put it bluntly, richer students have a greater chance of getting a place in the top 3%. Sadly, our economic inequity problem is also leading to educational inequity. Seeing how a education has a positive correlation to economic success, it's a vicious cycle.

    Parents have an obligation to do whatever it takes for their child to reach their fullest potential and be successful, however they define success. Hence I feel that parents going against the PSLE are doing so precisely because they believe that the exam has or will take a huge toll on their child, be it physically or mentally. I know that you would probably rebut this with "That's precisely what the PSLE is for! To weed out the weak from the strong." Sure, that would build a strong nation of intellectuals. But moving away from the Lee Kuan Yew mentality, is that all the education system is? By societal standards, letting the 97% be left to be unsuccessful? There have been many stories of students climbing back up at O Levels, but there have been many more of students who couldn't. Students who work extremely hard but fail to perform at the exam. People 'on top' would tell them "Maybe this stuff just isn't for you", but then again, by current social standards, that would just be another way of saying "Maybe you just aren't cut out to be successful."

    I might be digressing a little, but the point I'm trying to drive at is that people have to stop limiting their scope. Yes, doing well for the exam is important, but that's just the end. Having done the exam, while the result was not completely satisfactory, but knowing that you have pushed yourself to your limit is the means to an even greater end. The education system should be advocating the human spirit of perseverance, not just excellence. The results is but a certificate you keep in a folder. The experience is something you can apply to anything in life.

    Lastly, success should not only be defined by your status in society, but how you have lived your life, Singapore! That's something I think we have to change in order to progress forward as a nation.

    1. Your first point is about the kind of school a person goes to. You say getting into a “lower-end” school doesn’t hinder one from becoming successful. I don’t think anyone can legitimately quibble about that. But what we see today of students of top schools leading the way into the best faculties and the best universities is only a natural result of the best and brightest getting the best. The best and brightest are of course in the top 3%. Who can blame them if they want to go to the best schools? Teachers find it easier to teach a bunch of students with roughly the same intellectual capability. If the students are all brilliant, the teacher will naturally want to pitch the lessons at a higher level. This can only be good for everyone. Each group stands to improve on its own initial performance. That is why the PSLE is essential. It has to categorize students in order to place them in schools that can deal with their current potential and ability. If you place a weak student in RI, he will probably flounder and drop out of the school. To mix all students regardless of their intellectual strength would be doing a disservice to everyone. The brightest will be bored in class and the weakest will still find the lessons too challenging. But you are right in pointing out that the mindset is to get into the top school on this island. People tend to think that because this school churns out super results, they would get the same results if they were to go to that school. It doesn’t work that way. The school does well also because only the best students go there in the first place and since they are all good students, the pace of learning can be easily accelerated. Just as an example, RI has won the Angus Ross Prize for literature awarded by Cambridge every year since its inception in 1987 (no other country has ever won it) except for one year when HC won it and this year when there were two winners, one from RI and one from NJC. This may look attractive to parents but a kid with poor PSLE results surely can’t expect to win any prize or award or even do well in the A-levels just because he’s in RI. It doesn’t work that way. If anything, being in RI may dampen his spirits when he’s always the bottom of the class.

      Your second point is about inequity. Before I go into that, I should first address what you said about the 97%. It’s wrong to think that the 97% would be unsuccessful. It’s been some time since I looked into the percentages but if I’m not mistaken, the top 3% are the ones who qualify for RI. There are still good schools to go to apart from RI. HC is the second most competitive when it comes to the PSLE cut-off point. And there are our specialist schools, eg NUS High, which follow a different set of criteria from the PSLE. There are many good schools a student can go to. Some are just naturally bright. I know of students who qualified for the top school but they chose to remain in their average schools only to enter RI (RJC) after the O-levels which they of course topped the whole nation in. The kind of school does not determine a student’s success. [Continued in next post; there's word limit in blogger!!!]

    2. [Cont'd from before] Now, on the point of inequity, I’m afraid you are wrong. You mentioned “law and medicine and engineering”. I will pick law and medicine because of my familiarity with these groups. Most doctors and lawyers do not have kids who can qualify for RI and that’s a fact. If you look at the demographics in RI, you will be surprised to find that it’s an accurate cross-section of what you will find in our society. OK, maybe slightly more towards the middle-class bracket but I would say the majority are in the lower middle-class group. A lot of them never had any private tutors teaching them. It’s the kids of doctors and lawyers who don’t seem to do well enough to qualify for RI. In fact, they don't even make it to the top ten of their primary schools and for most schools, if you're not in the top ten category, it's likely you don't qualify for RI. The “inequity” you talk about doesn’t come about because of the PSLE and Singapore’s school system. Rather, the “inequity” if inequity it can be called can be seen later in life when students from this group are sent to universities overseas and they return with a medical or law degree. But surely we can’t say that’s unfair? The parents pay for their expensive overseas education because obviously, they don’t do well enough. There’s no law against parents paying for their kids’ education abroad. But my point is the PSLE must have been so carefully structured that students from poor families who are brilliant can still make it to the top school. It’s almost like an unbiased academic test that is not hinged on family background. Kudos to those who came up with the PSLE.

      Before I conclude, I should say that I fully endorse your final statement. Success in life is more than academia. But the PSLE is not designed to test one’s success in life. Its sole function is to analyse the academic strengths of students so as to better place them in secondary schools that will best hone their abilities. That’s all it does and a really good job it's done too!

  6. Indeed,as Gerard said, education should encompass not only knowledge about the world that we live in and how to enable us to earn even more money, but also about the pursuit to achieve goals beyond one can imagine, goals that the individual has established himself or herself. Education is simply a means through which the individual will learn more about the world he is living in and discover what he enjoys and to develop his potentials in order to optimize his life.
    With this in mind, i would like to express my views on why the structure of PSLE should be altered to suit the needs of individuals but not scraped.

    Through the lens of the government, which is concerned about the society as a whole and not individuals, needs to have a societal construct to put the individuals into jobs in which they are most capable in and can maximise whatever they do in those jobs. Since primary school is the basic foundation which individuals are educated, therein lies a need to sieve out the most academically gifted people as their potential can be developed to result in their future jobs having the most efficient members. PSLE does this job, as you have mentioned, being “probably the most effective qualifying exam”. It is subservient to achieving progress in their various industries, so that the society of Singapore can progress.

    PSLE also looks at the imbalance in society and attempts to ensure equality by addressing the root problem, manipulating education as a means for the individual to be better equipped with skills to rise from low income to higher incomes in the future.

    However, the mindset which Singaporeans perceive PSLE has eroded the true nature of education for the individual. Though it may be effective in allowing economic sustenance, the individual would not have the human spirit of perseverance. Education is a journey, and with the current state of the PSLE, people only look at the end of the journey. I read in the commentary in the Straits Times that many parents view PSLE as a judgement of whether the individual can survive in society or not. Currently education is aimed at scoring well for PSLE, and grades are all that matters. When students fail to perform, they are discouraged and advised to study harder because the grades will not give the student a bright future. Hence education is geared to the grades, instead of the self motivated spirit to extend his own capabilities. I am saying that the emphasis is more on the end, rather than the process itself. Because of the way the education is structured, the individual aims to score well in exams rather than learning more about the topics itself based on interest.

    There is also a subtle competition that is growing between students since they are young, because of the education system based on PSLE. Since young, children are told of the “survival of the fittest” and that society will not provide for those who are incapable. The meritocratic system also limits the number of As thus the number of “smarter students”. The bell curve, for example, limits the number of labelled intelligent people. Competition is thus bred since young and this is detrimental as it leads to a divided society. All these stem from the mindset of people towards PSLE, that it is a “gauge of the student’s abilities and academic strength” and thus there is a need to be the best, in the process being superior to others and beating them in this race. The PSLE, being an assessment of the success of education academically, in not supposed to generate this conflict since young.

    1. Thanks Russell for your comment. I will address both your posts here. I'm sure it will be great if we can have tests that include what a child is interested in. But interests are varied and there is time enough for us to get into that arena in university where a student can choose what he wants to read and in some universities, they even have subjects that are shocking to most people. That is why the PSLE homes in on basic education: languages, maths and science. Our system also allows for people who don't want to go the PSLE route. We now have specialist schools to cater for these students. Sports school for those interested in sports, arts school for those into dance, drama, music and other forms of art, NUS High for those into maths and the sciences but may not be strong in languages and recently, even a technology and design school. These schools don't really care about your PSLE score.

      I agree with you that the PSLE must not be scrapped but I don't think any modification is necessary. It's impossible to test a whole nation on a huge variety of subjects that the student might be interested in. We already have specialist schools who conduct their own tests. All I can say is Singapore really has come up with a winning formula as far as education goes.

  7. I am terribly sorry if I have deviated from the area of discussion in your thread, but these are some of what I feel on the topic.

    I would like to suggest that instead o f scraping the PSLE, it should be modified. To suit the nature of true education which is to develop one’s potential in his area of interest, the exam can have another component where students must do a project or write an essay of any topic of his interest, which will be assessed. This is of course in addition to the foundational subjects students take. Moreover, even at secondary education, at A levels, students should assessed on what they are most experienced, interested and affluent in. That way, education can place more emphasis on the human spirit of persevering. After all as Drake would say, You Only Live Once, so why not just seize the best out of education, right?

    Anyway, thanks for that insightful perspective about the topic and it really helped me ponder about it! :)