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#PSLE2021 (Part 1): An important undercurrent

Posted on: July 20, 2016

The news that caused ripples in Singapore schooling last week was the official announcement from the Ministry of Education (MOE) of the new scoring system that will be implemented in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in 2021.

There was a slew of news following the announcement. Some people made tsunamis out of the ripples, some rode the waves as they were [small sample of both].

Beneath the surface was an undercurrent that did not get much attention, but was the most significant change in terms of education. According to STonline, one of the changes was the switch from norm-referenced testing (NRT) to standards or criterion-referenced testing (CRT).

PSLE2021: From NRT to CRT

What are NRT and CRT in layman terms? Why is the switch an important driver of change?

In NRT, the results of a cohort of students are reduced to scores — T-scores in the case of PSLE — and lined up from the highest to the lowest (or vice versa). The result is a bell-shaped curve of scores: There will be a few very low and very high scores, and many somewhere-in-the-middle ones.

Reviewers of these scores typically use this distribution to create an even curve (a normal distribution, ND), and to rank and sort. In the adult world of work, this method might help determine who gets promotions or bonuses, what appraisal grade you get (if you are in the civil service), or who gets fired.

For example, a large organisation can first rank the performances of all its employees. If an ideal ND does not result, it can statistically massage it into an ideal bell curve. So if there are too many A-graders, some will be pushed into Bs, and as a result Bs become Cs and so forth. Once there is an ideal bell curve, someone can decide cut-offs and consequences, say, the top 5% get promotions and the bottom 15% are let go.

If this seems unfair to working adults, then what more for the 12-year-old children who take the PSLE but have no idea what is going on?

The core problem is that people are compared one against the other with or without their knowledge. If with, this can result in unhealthy competition because they want to be on the right part of the ND curve. If without, the people become victims of processes not transparent to them and circumstances beyond their control.

Is there a better way? Yes, it is called CRT (standard-based assessment and/or evaluation).

Modern corporations like Accenture are abandoning the outdated practice of norm-referencing [1] [2] and embracing comparisons of one. The fundamental principle is this: How one improves and contributes individually over time is more important than how one is measured against others.

For example, a worker might show evidence of specific skills that indicate that he or she is a novice, intermediate, or advanced worker. There is no comparing of all the workers regardless of their skill group or even comparing within each skill group.

To make this work, there must be standards or criteria that identify each skill group, e.g., skills A to J for novices to master; K to R for intermediates; S to Z for advanced plus five potential managerial markers.

Back to PSLE 2021. The switch is from NRT to CRT. It is more about the standards or specific criteria that indicate the test-based achievements of the child, and less about the comparison of one child with another.

This is a fundamental shift in mindset from sifting and sorting to measuring performance. The former is about what is good for the system and how to feed it; the latter is about where the learner is at and what is good for the learner.

However, this piecemeal change of the CRT system of academic levels (ALs) still falls short. I share thoughts on these in more reflections on PSLE2021 over the next few days.

Read Part 2: The Dark Side.

1 Response to "#PSLE2021 (Part 1): An important undercurrent"

CHAN Hsiao-yun 曾曉韻: RT @ashley: #PSLE2021 (Part 1): An important undercurrent #edsg via


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