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#PSLE2021 (Part 2): The Dark Side

Posted on: July 21, 2016

In Part 1 of my reflection on PSLE2021, I elaborated on why the move from norm-referenced testing (NRT) to criterion-referenced testing (CRT) was a fundamental shift. It could set the tone for the desired change from unhealthy competition and comparisons to a focus on individual achievement. To the latter end, PSLE2021 will have Achievement Levels (ALs) 1 to 8 instead of scores.

To claim that ALs will help students know where they stand is one thing. To say that ALs will help students focus learning is another.

TODAYonline claimed that the new system will “help children focus on learning instead of marks”. It mirrored the official message at MOE’s PSLE microsite.

The current PSLE does not help children focus on learning. The PSLE2021 with its ALs does not guarantee that either. This is because the:

  • PSLE is summative
  • Preparation for exams discourages it
  • Comparison and competition lead to stress
  • ALs are not actionable

Summative nature of PSLE
The ALs are part of summative assessment, which typically happens at the end of a course of study. Summative assessment is sometimes referred to as assessment of learning (AoL). The PSLE ALs should indicate what the student has learnt at the end of Primary school.

Summative assessments tend to focus on the products of learning, e.g., grades or ALs, instead of processes of learning.

The PSLE in its old or new form is like the quality control near the end of a production line. It rates the product of schooling (fail or pass; if pass, then how well) and determines where it goes next (to recycle or discard; to channel to which Secondary stream).

Exam preparation
With so much at stake, kids are drilled as the PSLE draws near. However, there is much to take in because an entire Primary schooling experience boils down to exam papers.

Students learn to game a system that is stacked against them. They learn shortcuts from their classrooms and tuition centres. Memorisation is key because it is the path of least resistance and learning is for the short term. The time-honoured strategy is GIGO — garbage in, garbage out.

Comparison, competition, stress
ALs will not stop comparison and competition. This is what creates the unnecessary PSLE stress.

At least two news agencies [1] [2] explored the effect of stress. One parent reportedly said that “students will not have to stress about having to outscore their peers under the new system”. I disagree.

Children are taught to compare by adults. They are conditioned in the classroom, home, and other social environments to do this. Students find out how their peers have done. Parents compare notes because they realise their children compete for limited places in their Secondary school of choice. As a result, students are told they can do better than themselves and someone else.

Enrichment tuition centres already take advantage the desire to compare and compete. The tuition industry will tweak its marketing messages and promise better ALs instead of better letter grades or scores.

ALs are not going to remove comparisons.

ALs are not going to stop enrichment tuition as the chase will be for AL1.

There is a simpler way to examine this issue. Some have remarked on the similarity of ALs to O-level grades [1] [2]. Is there less or no competition at the Singapore-Cambridge O-Level Examinations?

Reality bites and at least one parent put it plainly in this report:

Ms Deborah Giam, whose daughter is a student at Methodist Girls’ School, agreed it will be fairer to judge a student’s own performance but also felt the PSLE will “continue to be a source of stress”. “In the case of the T-score, a lot of it was out of people’s control … so all you can do is always push your kid to do the best that they can. With this new system, it’s still the same because … at end of the day, it’s still about how many points you score,” she said.

ALs are not actionable
The PSLE is taken at the end of a child’s Primary school experience. What difference can a student make if he or she has an AL4 in an academic subject? It is not as if there are any lessons of note after the examinations. The papers are not returned to students so that they can address what they have not mastered.

Short of retaking the PSLE, a student cannot try to get a better AL. The Secondary schools students are posted to are also not necessarily going to take note of the AL and remediate.

PSLE2021 Yoda.

The fictitious Master Yoda once said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

If there was an Edu Yoda, he might say, “Summative assessment is the path to the Dark Side of PSLE2021. ALs lead to comparisons. Comparisons lead to competition. Competition leads to stress.”

There is a lot of noise amidst the signals of PSLE2021. Strip away the noise and you might detect the important signals.

One signal is the shift towards on standards or criteria of learning. The focus is the learner and the mastery of learning. The other is the fact that the design and implementation of PSLE2021 is still summative. The result of this is still quality control and sorting, and with it the socio-cultural baggage of comparing, competing, and unnecessary stress.

The two signals do not harmonise. One hints at a new tune, the other repeats an old refrain.

If I can keep my figurative noise-cancelling headphones on long enough, I will pick on a few more PSLE2021 notes in more reflections.

Read Part 3: Differentiation vs granularity.

4 Responses to "#PSLE2021 (Part 2): The Dark Side"

Mark Morvant: RT @ashley: #PSLE2021 (Part 2): The Dark Side #edsg via


CHAN Hsiao-yun 曾曉韻: RT @ashley: #PSLE2021 (Part 2): The Dark Side #edsg via


You know what else is serving the system rather than the people in it? The speed of change. Yeah, some may say that is it a reality (procurement, testing, etc) but seriously – 5 years to change grading… not good.


I do not think the five years is to change the grading system. That change is practically set in stone. Taking in account Acting Ed Minister’s word, PSLE microsite, and news reports, the time is for stakeholders to figure out how to adopt and adapt. Some will do what is expected, others not.


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