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Helping our students learn at their own pace

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'One size fits all' curriculum does not work for education and MOE aims to cater to learning needs of students

The Ministry of Education (MOE) recently shared some updates on the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) scoring system which will be implemented in 2021.

It is part of our wider efforts to move away from the over-emphasis on examination grades.

We understand that some parents have concerns regarding the scoring of Foundation level subjects and how it will impact the placement of their children in secondary schools.

We hope to address this by sharing the rationale of having Foundation level subjects and how they are assessed.

The Standard curriculum in primary schools caters to the majority of students.

Examinations such as the PSLE are used to assess the levels of understanding of students across a large spectrum. Under the new Achievement Level (AL) system, ALs 1 to 8 represent those levels.

Purely from the point of view of determining the level of understanding of each child, we do not need Foundation level subjects.

However, there are students who are particularly weak in certain subjects for a variety of reasons.

These students may be pulled out for small group coaching, but they may still struggle with the rigour of the Standard curriculum, and become demotivated.

We recognise that a "one-size fits all" curriculum does not work for education, and that we need to cater to the learning needs of our students.

This is the philosophy of Subject-Based Banding (SBB) - we offer subjects at different levels of difficulty, and provide the flexibility for our students to take the subject at a level that meets their learning needs.

Therefore, we offer Foundation level subjects at Primary 5 and 6, which focus on fundamental concepts to help students build the foundation to progress further.

Differentiated teaching is a proven approach to helping students stay engaged. This is the main purpose of Foundation subjects, which is to sustain the student's motivation to learn.

Equally important is figuring how best to score Foundation level subjects at PSLE.

The treatment of Foundation level subject scores is actually similar under both the current T-Score system and the AL system.

Under the T-Score system, the marks for Foundation level subjects are scaled down, before being added to the overall T-Score.

We apply the same scaling approach for Foundation subjects in the new AL scoring system.

What has changed is that under the standards-referenced AL scoring, it will be clear as to how each AL contributes to the total PSLE Score.

With this change, questions will arise about how these subjects are scored and whether the grades reflect the effort of the student.

To be a fair measure, the grades need to reflect the student's level of understanding. The three-grade differential for Foundation subjects is sufficient because these subjects cover basic concepts.


Based on the curriculum and demands of Foundation level subjects, a student scoring AL A has displayed a level of understanding similar to a student who scores AL 6 under the Standard curriculum.

One might then ask further why we cannot make Foundation subjects slightly harder, and let the student score AL 5 or above.

Our prime consideration is ensuring that our Foundation students can cope with the subject, so we need to carefully manage the curriculum and assessment demands.

In our schools, our teachers are able to assess if a student should take a subject at the Standard or Foundation level.

If a student who initially takes the subject at the Foundation level at P5 subsequently improves tremendously and has the potential to score better than AL 6, we will encourage him or her to take the Standard curriculum in P6.

Educationally, it is better for the student to take a subject at a level that will keep him or her engaged and motivated to learn.

At the same time, we maintain this flexibility and porosity in the education system to cater to those who improve and are able to take on a more demanding level later.

There are also questions on why the range of marks determining each grade is not the same, and is wider for the lower grades.

This is because of the way the curriculum, and therefore the examinations, are designed - the grades and levels of understanding are not linear.

A more intuitive explanation is this: when we learn something new, after some initial lessons and practice, if and after we can master the basic concepts, we often find ourselves improving by leaps and bounds, but as we get better, the improvements become small steps, and finally as we reach a high level, we inch just a little further, even after much learning and practice. The ALs and mark ranges reflect the curriculum and this reality of learning.

PSLE is only one of the many checkpoints in a child's learning journey.

Even after taking a Foundation level subject, students can progress to the Express stream.

Furthermore, we have SBB in all our secondary schools today, which allows students to take a subject at a more demanding level, according to their strengths and interests.

Also, Full SBB will be introduced in 2024, which will move us further away from the current concepts of streaming and allow us to instead focus on each student's learning needs, which is far more important in our education system.

The writer is Director-General of Education, Ministry of Education