From ‘Scrap PSLE? Not yet, but space out exams’, 22 Sept 2012, Voices, Today
(Ng Ya Ken): We can change the components and emphasis or assessment method of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), but we cannot eliminate the need for a standardised grading mechanism, at least not now. Scrapping the PSLE may not solve the problems we have now. Neither would replacing it, because parents would hunt for new tuition lessons to help their children score in the new system.
With our competitive education system, after we get rid of one big elephant, another big animal will come to take its place. Perhaps we can only abolish the evaluating mechanism when all secondary schools are perceived by parents as equally good. In the long run, we must close the quality and perception gaps between good and very good schools.
In the meantime, we can think of ways to lessen the tension caused by the PSLE for our young and their parents. For example, we could split the exam into three parts, with the first two parts to be taken at the end of Primary 5 and at the middle of Primary 6.
…Also, let us not label the PSLE a “sacred cow”. The term carries a negative connotation when not aptly used.
Of all the wildlife analogies to describe a life-changing event for most young Singaporeans, the most apt in my opinion is the ‘big bad WEREWOLF’ as suggested by Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong, when he said ‘there is no silver bullet, no magic solution’ when it comes to the dreaded PSLE. Like the mythical beast ravaging the daily lives of villagers, this academic sieve is often blamed for our pressure-cooker educational system and society in general, though the more pragmatic-minded may defend its existence as a necessary evil, just as a fable needs its proverbial dragon to slay. Despite all these arguments about having a fairer system to pigeonhole our children, and how PM has insisted that children live their childhood, there will still be some with this mindset of conquest and ‘baptism of fire’ when it comes to the PSLE or anything like it. These include not just parents, academics, but even some CHILDREN themselves, who take the exam so seriously and gamely that the cramping of playtime, the tuition expenses, the mental disorders, are all worthy sacrifices in the name of being victorious in what’s essentially a national competition for secondary school placing.
No other trial exemplifies the term ‘pursuit of excellence’ than scoring in the PSLE, and no thanks to the media lauding top scorers annually, green-eyed parents all over the country will feel inadequate if they’re not gearing their little champions for the battle of their lives. For decades we have subjected our kids to ‘survival mode’, and we can’t make drastic changes overnight unless we’re reasonably certain that 6 years of Social Darwinism has done more long-term harm than good. The PSLE is like the Singaporean Hunger Games, except with only sweat and buckets of tears. Like any story of courage and triumph over adversity, the PSLE too has its Heroes’ Hall of Fame, which likens its conquest to that of snaring the Crown jewel, or completing one of the seven tasks of Sinbad. If you take the monster out of a Greek legend, you won’t have an ‘Odyssey’. You’d get the Love Boat instead.
Our champions and Hall of Famers are naturally media darlings, and no congratulatory story is complete without some heartwarming filler to assure kiasu parents that if top-scorers can pull it off despite their troubles, so could their kids. The current grand champion and record holder is 294 scorer Natasha from St Hilda’s in 2007, whose grandfather died just before she sat for the exam. The media also buzzed over Natasha’s piano and violin lessons, her ambitions to be a paediatrician, and being rewarded for her efforts with a place in RGS. 2009′s champion, China-born Qiu Biqing could hardly speak a word of English, but slew the ‘elephant’ despite coming from a ‘neighbourhood’ school (Qi Fa). Whether you’re disabled, a foreigner, pint-sized, read nothing but Harry Potter in your free time, work part-time at your parents’ hawker stall or suffer from dyslexia, nothing makes a score sweeter than a tale about how you overcame the odds to beat everyone else who requires 3 days of tuition a week.
Still, any anxious parent with a child in P6 reading such accolades would instantly, and irrationally, associate smart kids with schools which breed, and accept, PSLE champions, nevermind what people are saying about ‘every school being a good school’ following the recent demolition of the banding system. Clearly, in this case, the best in the country, whichever primary school they’re from, is heading for the best ‘brand name’ school the highest PSLE score can buy. A 2000 Today article described top scorers as ‘St Hilda’s STARS’ (30 Nov 2000), and even till now, you hear of ‘top’ schools being embroiled in scandal, whether it’s teacher-student sex or drugs. There will be a stratum of prestige, the cream of the crop, that will continue to endear as long as top schools only accept top scorers, as long as top scorers are treated like they are the best and brightest brains our country has to offer.
Interestingly, the past 5 years’ PSLE top scorers were all girls (2007, 2008, 2009, 2011), with the exception of Alex Tan in 2010, who was described as the ‘son of two doctors’. Grand champion Natasha and Alex were from GEP as well. Whether as a means to spur or baffle parents with these seemingly mixed signals on what a top scorer is made of, perhaps the Ministry should look into curbing such implicit rankings through blatant top-scorer fanfare as well. Like the 4 four blind men touching different parts of the elephant, we’re still missing the big picture, and if it turns out the PSLE is more a hydra than a marauding beast, scrapping it through brute force alone without addressing the culture of branding, reputation and kiasuism that exists because of it will just mean another ugly head spontaneously regenerating to take its place.