Saturday, October 16, 2004

MOE on the PSLE Science paper 

After receiving a number of complaints regarding the difficulty of this year’s Science paper in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), the Ministry of Education has responded with its explanation, which was reported in The Straits Times today:

This year’s batch was the first tested on the revamped Science syllabus introduced in 2001, but there was no change in the format and type of questions, or in the balance between easy and difficult. All questions were based on what was in the syllabus, said the ministry and the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board, which jointly set the PSLE papers... All questions were a mix of those which tested students on facts, as well as those which required them to apply basic scientific concepts to solve problems.

The Straits Times put questions to the ministry after getting many calls and letters from parents and teachers who felt the paper was exceptionally tough this year. They said questions were phrased in a tricky way and required excessive analyses of data. Worse, they charged, some questions went outside the Primary 6 syllabus... Many pupils...were unable to complete the paper, with some reduced to tears.

But an exams board spokesman said it was not sure what had caused the hue and cry. The science paper contained questions to test thinking and process skills, and they should have been accessible to pupils with a good grasp of scientific concepts... Many teachers had attended workshops and courses on how to conduct activities that would get their pupils to investigate and analyse science concepts...
I see three possible reasons for the hue and cry. One, of course, is that, despite the Ministry of Education’s response, the Science paper really is tougher. The second is that it was not designed to be more difficult but came through as such because pupils had not been properly prepared for it, either academically or psychologically, by their schools and parents. The third reason is that there will always be some pupils who will not perform well and out of these, some are likely to complain that the paper is too difficult.

Whatever the true reason, getting the educational system just right is never an easy task. Relatively speaking, schools in the West tend to emphasise thinking skills while those in the East tend to emphasise facts and rote learning. Singapore is trying to change from the latter to the former. Such a transformation was never likely to be easy. Apart from getting the balance right, good change management is also needed to prepare teachers, pupils and parents to smoothen the transition. Whether this is being properly done, only the ministry can answer.

And it is not just in Singapore that we have debates on education. It is also common in the United States. Just today, I stumbled on this one on the blog of J Bradford DeLong, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.


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