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Interpretations: DSA

Posted on: March 22, 2017

I had a few questions after reading an opinion piece on the changes to the Direct School Admissions (DSA) in Singapore.

For the uninitiated, the DSA is a semi-alternative route for primary school children to get into secondary schools of their choice. There is also DSA for secondary school children to get into junior colleges.

I call DSA a semi-alternative over the PSLE and GCE O-Level Examinations because the latter are still key criteria for the child to stay in the school after they have their foot in the door.

The problem was that some parents gamed the DSA by hothousing their kids by way of preparatory courses and activities. The original purpose for schools to admit children based on their mostly non-academic talents got diluted.

So the op piece, DSA revisions laudable, but challenge lies in transparency, had a lot going for it based on its title.

The article started with the main changes from 2018 onwards:

  • Discontinuing general ability tests (GATs)
  • Increasing the DSA proportion of each Secondary intake to 20%*

Both moves revisit the purpose of DSA: To allow kids with non-academic talents to shine and get a place in hotly-contested schools. I would add that taking away the GATs removes one element of hothousing (test preparation) and the companies that charge money for administering tests.

*This cap applies only to the majority of schools that do not rely exclusively on DSA for new students. The rule change does not apply to schools offering the six-year Integrated Programme (IP) leading to the International Baccalaureate, e.g., the School of the Arts (SOTA), NUS High School for Maths and Science.

The op piece first addressed the fact that students taking advantage of DSA tended to come from more affluent backgrounds. For example:

… there is often a high degree of correlation between student wealth and non-academic talent. Why? Consider students who excel in music. Affluent parents would be in a better position to provide their kids with music lessons at a young age to hone their musical talents.

While any reader (myself included) might nod in agreement, a more critical one should ask: Can we take the statement “high degree of correlation between student wealth and non-academic talent” at face value? Where is the data? How high is the correlation? Did the newspaper leave it out? Perception and opinion are not fact and even facts can be challenged.

Then there was the suggestion that schools be more transparent and objective. I am all for transparency, but I am critical of objectivity as some perceive it.

While non-cognitive skills like tenacity, resilience, trustworthiness and perseverance are important traits desired by schools, schools should be mindful that these are typically difficult to measure and will be measured subjectively, depending on the person evaluating the child.

So any evaluation of these traits should ideally be complemented by more objective measures (answering questions such as “Has the student ever represented his/her school at the national/school level?”, “Has the student ever held a leadership position at the community/school/class level?” and so forth).

What schools take kids in purely based on such character traits? At best these are secondary or tertiary considerations after the primary criteria have been evaluated.

Schools already have (or should already have) rigorous requirements for DSA: Interviews, focus groups, evidence-based performance, verification of certificates, portfolios, etc. What some might call alternative assessments become central or mainstream in the case of DSA to complement academic results that arrive later.

While objectivity is seems to be the gold standard, it is not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes a child has an X-factor that is not in the rubric because it is difficult to define or measure. Sometimes it is the potential of that child that is important and so judges have to make professional projections.

These decisions are based on the experience of the panel of selectors. They may quantify some traits, but the rest is largely qualitative or gut feel. Such decision-making processes are subjective because they rely on professional judgement and take into account the real individual that stands before them, not the illusionary above “average” child.

Furthermore, do such “objective” measures and questions develop the school or the child? To be fair, the school needs to decide whether or not to invest in the new student. But unlike a Google or Apple hiring a new employee, schools have social and civic roles to play. These are to enculturate children by schooling and to help them self-actualise by educating them.

Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet or dots on a graph. They might be to a bean-counter who is looking for the most efficient ways to channel them into different schools. We already have a very efficient streaming (and now DSA) system that can be very cruel too.

I say we be more effective and empathetic. We have reached that state in our collective social evolution and so we must embrace such higher ideals and make them real. To do this, we should also embrace subjectivity, not just objectivity, in the DSA process. To not do this is to act contrarily to what DSA stands for: Putting the child and his/her talents first.


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