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#PSLE2021 (Part 4): Why are the AL bands uneven?

Posted on: July 25, 2016

The first three parts of my reflections on PSLE2021 was like reviewing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  • Part 1: The good change is the move to criterion-based testing
  • Part 2: The bad is that the assessment is still summative
  • Part 3: The ugly is how T-score differentiation goes away only to be replaced by course granularity


Most people know how the current A grade in the PSLE spans scores of 75 or more. They have pointed out how the new Achievement Levels 1 to 4 will be equivalent to the current A.

The concern seems to be that the old A was attainable at 75 while straight As (75s) under the new scheme results in four AL4s and aggregate of 16. The new aggregate will not look and feel as pretty.

Others have focused on the disparity of score spans for each AL. I illustrate the score spans for each AL in the table below.

AL Raw score range Score span
1 ≥90 11
2 85 to 89 5
3 80 to 84 5
4 75 to 79 5
5 65 to 74 10
6 45 to 64 20
7 20 to 44 25
8 <20 19

But those who think this way are missing the point.

Not only do the ALs try to introduce some granularity to the grades, I speculate that they are an attempt to 1) prevent grade inflation, and 2) insidiously reintroduce the bell curve.

Grade inflation is the ease with which students get an A or even an A* for each of their examinable subjects. It is more commonly referred to in the context of school, university, or workplace admission offices. The people who work here help decide which students get entry and they struggle to distinguish between numerous diplomas filled with straight As.

This is the source of the snippet on grade inflation that I tweeted last year.

The “finer” grained ALs help separate the good As from the not so good As. This punctures grade inflation, and very likely, egos and morales too.

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how the future standards or criterion-based testing was better than the current norm-referenced testing. I described it as an important fundamental shift in the PSLE. Implemented well, the focus could shift centrally to the learner and learning instead of focusing on sorting.

However, administrators and policymakers like “God views” of their system. Reducing people to numbers, data points, statistics, and diagrams are their work (and could be their idea of fun). The bell curve is too sexy to let go because phenomena only seem normal if there is a normal distribution.

Things seem neater and safer under the umbrella of a bell curve. You can be sure that one or more groups have crunched numbers with existing data to see if the ALs might insidiously recreate a normal distribution.

With some logical guesswork, you might see how this pattern might emerge as well.

It is a fairly safe assumption to say that many kids taking PSLE have be “tuitioned” and/or drilled in school. Quite a few will get As. The ALs 1 to 4 will spread them out: There will be fewer AL1s than AL4s. The curve draws itself with greater granularity.

TL;DR? The uneven AL bands in PSLE might not just be for increasing the granularity of measuring achievement. It might actually help administrators and policymakers prevent A-grade inflation and recreate the bell curve.

4 Responses to "#PSLE2021 (Part 4): Why are the AL bands uneven?"

CHAN Hsiao-yun 曾曉韻: RT @ashley: #PSLE2021 (Part 4): Why are the AL bands uneven? #edsg via


You’re right. MOE did say that they have crunched the numbers based on past exams so that their point distribution SHOULD result in a normal curve.

I’m waiting for the black swan.


It’s speculation or an intelligent guess at this point. I wonder if the SEAB might do a trust-building exercise and be transparent about the data and methods. Now THAT would be a change.


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