Doing TOO WELL in Pri 5-6? Why grades drop for PSLE.

In my 10+ years as a educator, one of the most common stories I’ve heard is that of straight A students flunking their PSLE English, and the parents subsequently panic sending their child to me during Sec 1. Whenever this happens, I can only wish I had gotten to teach them earlier as there would have been clear warning signs and things could have improved BEFORE PSLE.


Now, while it is common for certain secondary schools in Singapore to set prelim papers above the difficulty of the actual O Level examinations, this trend is actually reversed in some primary schools. The reasons for this are varied.

Firstly, should anything render you unable to take the O levels, tough luck. You have no choice but to try again next year. However, should extreme circumstances render your child unable to take PSLE, prelim results may be used on a case-by-case basis to enter secondary schools. This scares schools from adopting the ‘keep children on their toes’ approach that secondary schools take, as should the unthinkable happen, your child might be forced to use an unfairly low score to enter secondary education.


Secondly, the psyche of a 12 year old is viewed to be much more fragile than that of a 16 year old. This is actually CRITICAL, as I share in my other article here about the importance of cultivating exam confidence. Schools may avoid setting overly-difficult papers as they wish to avoid discouraging their students or simply because they fear public backlash for ‘stressing out’ their kids. Some schools have taken it to the extent of forbidding their teachers from using red pens for marking, fearing that red ink somehow scars the fragile soul of a 12 year old. As a result, some schools set overly simple papers to ‘encourage’ their students.


Finally, not all marking is equal. Even between papers from different schools of the same difficulty, the marking rubric issued by each school may cause wildly differing results. Language assessment is highly subjective. While actual PSLE papers are marked by a minimum of 2 markers to standards and requirements set by SEAB, the marking of school examinations falls under the purview and marking philosophy of the school. Therefore, the stringency of marking and how marks are awarded varies greatly from school to school.


But isn’t avoiding disappointment a good thing?


No student should ever suffer a breakdown from stress, especially not at such a tender age. However, swaddling them with cotton wool and artificially inflating their marks to falsely boost their confidence is not the way to go either.


Overprotecting gives students a false sense of confidence, forgetting that the PSLE is a national examination taken by approximately 40,000 students across all schools, blind-marked by the SEAB. Their teachers will not be there to give them half-marks here and there for ‘trying hard’ or ‘almost getting it right’. It also leads to parents, through the best of intentions, asking their child to focus on their ‘weaker’ subjects instead of devoting equal time to all.


3 warning signs that grades might drop for PSLE

#1 School papers are too easy

How to tell: Percentage of students getting the top grade


Whether or not the bell curve is used in the marking of PSLE, whether through the A* or AL system, it is an undeniable reality that exams are by nature designed to separate students into different levels of mastery.


Ask your child how many students in his school have achieved the highest band for that examination. If more than 30% of the cohort has 90 marks and above, alarm bells should be going off. 


#2 Marking is too lenient

How to tell: Misawarding of marks / Sympathy marks.


Look through your child’s paper 2 and search for any half marks awarded.

Certain schools try to avoid giving students bad grades by ‘sneaking’ them marks. This is usually done through awarding half-marks for single mistakes in an otherwise correct sentence in the synthesis section, for incomplete answers in the open ended comprehension section or most egregiously, for spelling/tense errors in the answers of the open ended cloze passage.

The PSLE marking guide stipulates that there are NO half marks to be awarded anywhere in paper 2.     

If your child’s composition has more than 20 circled errors and they still score between 26-28/40, that is a sign of lenient marking. 

The bar is set pretty low when markers put ticks for very simple similes such as “as fast as a cheetah”, “his face was as red as a tomato”.



Prevent PSLE grade drops by CHALLENGING students

(above: screenshot from our testimonials page – students should NOT feel like tuition is just more of the same boring lessons they get in school)


While we do not believe in pushing a child to the point of breaking, we do believe that children are capable of much more than they give themselves credit for. Once children ENJOY the lessons, they start loving to learn. It is Phi Learning’s job to make every student LOVE COMING FOR LESSONS. 


Our PSLE curriculum is, by design, more difficult than almost any other school or tuition centres. We believe in normalizing and attuning our students to any level of difficulty the PSLE paper may throw at them.


It is better for students to continually face difficult questions and get them wrong in practice, than to constantly get full marks for meaninglessly easy questions.


Difficult questions stretch the mind and expand the horizons. Difficult, however, doesn’t have to be boring. Our questions are structured to engender further queries from the kids, to broaden both their vocabulary and general knowledge. This approach has helped us groom 50% of our students well enough to be accepted into Integrated Programmes at secondary level.


Despite the initial complaints from students about the level of difficulty, we often find them looking forward to the next worksheet, to find out what the zany cast of characters in the questions get up to next and we are always gratified when we see the sense of genuine accomplishment when a child starts getting more and more questions correct without the help of the teacher.

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