23 September 2012

No Ranking, No Banding, No PSLE?

The Ministry of Education will abolish the academic banding of schools this year.

Banding or grouping of secondary schools according to their average O-level scores into nine broad bands was introduced in 2004.

But ranking of secondary schools started much earlier, in 1992.

School ranking
Ranking of secondary schools started when the Ministry of Education decided in 1992 to provide the public with information on the performance of the top 100 secondary schools to help students and their parents make informed choices of secondary schools after the students had completed the Primary School Leaving Examinations.
Schools were ranked based on their students' results at the General Certificate of Education O Level Examination (L1B5 for the special or express course and L1B4 for the normal course), both in terms of absolute as well as value-added performance.

Data on schools, which perform well in physical fitness, were also provided.

The Straits Times published the annual ranking of the secondary schools.
Over time, the published rankings evolved and eventually showed absolute academic performance (top 50 schools), academic value-added (top 20 schools) and physical fitness (top 50 schools).

One perhaps unforeseen consequence of making public the ranking was that many schools made English Literature and other non-compulsory subjects that were considered more difficult for their students to score distinctions in optional subjects at the O level in order to improve their positions in the annual ranking.

School banding
Soon after assuming the education portfolio, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced changes in 2004 to the school ranking system, which was thought to have led to an over-emphasis on examination performance, at the expense of a more holistic and rounded education.  It might also have entrenched conventional approaches to education, and inhibited schools from exploring approaches which could help develop their students' abilities, e.g. in innovation and creative thinking, but had no assurance of producing superior examination results.
MOE wanted was to support and encourage schools in their efforts to provide an all-round education.
Ranking of schools based on academic scores was replaced by banding schools with similar academic performance.

The number of academic and non-academic domains under which the achievements of each school were recognised was expanded, so as to provide a broader picture of their performance.  These domains were aligned to the desired outcomes of education such as academic value-added, character development and physical and aesthetics.
No more banding
After about a year in office, Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat recently announced that MOE would abolish the banding of secondary schools by academic results, remove the Masterplan of Awards and reduce the number of school awards.
MOE will place more emphasis on recognising best practices by schools in delivering a well-rounded education.  These will enable every school to be a good school in delivering a student-centric, values-driven education.
Developing students’ academic knowledge and skills continues to be an important core task for schools.  However, MOE recognises that a school’s effectiveness in academic education is better measured by its academic value-added than by its absolute academic band, as the student intake profile varies across different schools.  MOE will continue to monitor and recognise schools’ ability to value-add to their students academically.
MOE will remove the Masterplan of Awards but will continue to recognise good school practices in five key aspects: teaching and learning; student all-round development; staff development and well being; character and citizenship education; and partnership.
No ranking, no banding
Few if any students or their parents will dispute that developing the students' academic knowledge and skills is the most important outcome of a secondary school education.

Relative academic achievement (i.e., ranking) is important, as MOE's website shows.  MOE extols the achievements of Singapore students at, for example, International Geography Olympiad, International Science Competitions, International Mathematical Olympiad, and International Biology Olympiad.
Few if any students who can gain entry to top tier schools, or their parents, consider academic value-add to be relevant.  These students are, after all, the top students in their cohort.  Academic value-add is relevant to the other students only.

It is very difficult for a top tier school to demonstrate significant value add vis-à-vis the other schools.

Even when ranking or banding is scrapped, MOE still has to provide students and their parents with guidance on choosing an appropriate school for the students.  MOE will continue to provide information on the cut-off points for admission to the respective schools in the preceding year.  Such cut-off points provide a rough guide to the schools' ranking.

Although MOE's aim to make all schools good schools, there will be better schools and the rest.  If two schools are of similar academic ranking, students and their parents will choose one or the other based on other qualities or factors.  But if the academic ranking of the two schools is vastly different, academic ranking is the primary consideration.
Universities try their best to be ranked as high as possible, and such rankings are public knowledge.  Why should secondary schools be different?
It is unrealistic not to rank or band secondary schools.
Some parents want the Primary School Leaving Examinations to be scrapped because it is too stressful for the students (and perhaps for the parents too).
This is the wrong direction.  There needs to be a common examination at the national level to assess the academic calibre of each student vis-à-vis other students in his cohort, and to use this to stream the students.

The PSLE is based on a relatively elementary curriculum, both in content and number of subjects, compared to what the students have to face in secondary one.  Students are assessed in four subjects at the PSLE — the English language, mother tongue, mathematics and science.

Students also have a lot of time to prepare for the PSLE, again compared to what they have in secondary one.

If students and their parents find the PSLE stressful, it is only because PSLE grades determine the next step in the students' academic journey.  And one of these steps is the secondary school to which they will be posted.

Unfortunately, there is no realistic objective and independent way to do this without the PSLE.

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