Challenging questions in PSLE capped at 15% each year: MOE director-general
Fifteen per cent of Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) questions are classified as "challenging" each year, and the national exam is kept at a consistent standard of difficulty across the years, said Ms Liew Wei Li, the Ministry of Education's (MOE) director-general of education, on Friday (July 15).
"What this means is that there will only be a few challenging questions set each year, making up about 15 marks of the paper," she said in a post on her LinkedIn page and MOE's Schoolbag website.
While a few mathematics problems have been the centre of public discussion and debate, such questions are "actually few and far between" within the exam, she added.
"It is important to remember that the overall standard of any examination paper is determined by the mix of questions as a whole, and not by just the 'Helen and Ivan' question for that year."
She was referring to a question in the PSLE maths paper last year that was so challenging that it reportedly left pupils in tears.
PSLE maths exams have been a source of angst over the years, with similar complaints surfacing from time to time and parents taking issue with certain questions.
Ms Liew, who took on the director-general of education role in April, said the PSLE is designed to cater to pupils of different abilities.
"The majority of questions are accessible to most students, with a small number of questions allowing stronger students to demonstrate their mastery of the subject."
In her post about the PSLE, she said every pupil's mark in the new scoring system reflects his or her mastery of the subject as there is no bell curve or quotas imposed on the number of pupils for each Achievement Level (AL) band.
Under this new system, which took effect last year, pupils attain ALs of 1 to 8 for each of four subjects, with their final PSLE score being the sum of the ALs.
Ms Liew said that because the majority of pupils find the PSLE manageable, their scores are often distributed towards the higher end, with almost half of them achieving 75 marks of more - AL4 or better - across all PSLE subjects.
At the end of the day, every parent wants his child to have options, she said, and the PSLE results provide "crucial information" on educational choices.
"They help us guide our children to make appropriate secondary school and subject-level choices," she added.
As an educator for more than 25 years, Ms Liew said she has heard of parents taking time off work and pupils taking up extra coaching during the school holidays during the PSLE year.
Acknowledging parents' anxiety, she said: "When you hear of how some parents support their children, you may feel conscious or troubled that you have not done as much.
"I myself have two children, and despite being an educator who is familiar with the design of examinations and the support schools and teachers provide to our students, I am still not immune. Frankly, that is why I exited the parent WhatsApp group chats for both my children."
She noted that out of all the national exams, the PSLE seems to attract the most stress.
"Oddly enough, the GCE N-, O- and A-level examinations are more difficult, whether we judge by examination demand, percentage of higher-order questions or grades," she said.
"Perhaps it has to do with the secondary schools we hope our children will be able to progress to, or that the PSLE papers are more accessible to us as parents. It could also be that our children are still at an age where many parents, myself included, are still learning to let go," she added.
"No teacher nor exam-setter ever sets out to inflict stress," said Ms Liew. "At the heart of the matter, no parent ever wishes for their child to become disappointed while in the pursuit of their goals.
"Tests and examinations, just like sports or arts competitions, are some early opportunities for us to teach our children about courage, and having the resilience and determination to work towards our goals."