While there is a standard format for the national exam, there is no hard...
Since I first entered the tuition industry in 2009, I have observed a certain relation between school grades and national exam grades. Parents are often freaked out by how their children score C5 and C6 all the way to the school prelims. However, when the ‘O’ level results are released, the principal is bragging on stage about a 100% pass rate with more than 40% distinction.
My partner Yong Hui and I have spent the last twelve years teaching primary and secondary level English, preparing more than a thousand students for the national exams – PSLE, ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. Over the last 3 years, 50% Phi Learning’s PSLE students have made it to Integrated Programmes, with many more accepted to top secondary schools.
(Above: Mr Neo’s consecutive A1s for O-Level English)
We keep ourselves abreast of the syllabus by sitting for ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels as private candidates every year. Having sat for ‘O’ and ‘A” level English many times (and scoring consecutive distinctions), we know exactly what causes this discrepancy between school and national exam results.
Do Schools Mark Up or Mark Down?
This is actually a pretty common phenomenon. Language assessment is highly subjective. Grading standards and paper difficulty differ from school to school.
Some schools are so notoriously stringent in their marking that more than half the cohort fail the prelims (this doesn’t happen at PSLE level, as explained here).
Other schools set papers so easy that one in four students ace it. When the results are released, about 1/20 FAIL.
Based on our experience, most schools tend to set the English exams at a difficulty above the O level paper and usually mark more stringently. Schools seek to instil a sense of inadequacy so that students stay on their toes. “You need to work harder if you don’t wish to fail ‘O’ level English.” With that comes remedial lessons, supplementary classes, and an occasional parent-teacher meeting.
However, if you take a close look at the ‘O’ level papers from the ten-year series, you may realise that the comprehension passages and questions are actually pretty straightforward. Most questions can be solved by adequate lifting and there are quite a few ‘Find the word’ or ‘Identify the phrase’ questions.
Does that mean you can sit back and relax? ABSOLUTELY NOT.
Because the paper is relatively easier than what you get in school, the bell curve for the English paper is consequently higher. While the A1 mark is never announced by SEAB, we surmise that it is probably above 75%.
What do we base our assumptions on?
Having compiled our students’ exam papers for many years, we have a keen understanding of how different schools set and mark papers. We analyse our students’ prelim performance as well as how their answers match up to our own (since we take the same exam as them every year) in the actual ‘O’ levels. When the results are released, we draw a certain correlation.
Our students are mostly from schools in the east. The bulk of our students come from the following secondary schools – Victoria, Dunman High, Tanjong Katong Secondary, Chung Cheng High, CHIJ Katong, St Patrick’s, Anglican High, Bedok South, Bedok View, Bedok Green, Junyuan secondary, Ngee Ann secondary etc. Based on the papers we have compiled over the years, we assess the school papers on two variables:
- Paper difficulty
- Marking stringency
(Caveat: the following is a subjective list based on teaching 1,000+ students from over 50 schools)
While more than 90% of our students perform within the projected range, there are outliers who underperform or far exceed our expectations. Language exams are prone to upsets. We have seen straight A students collapsing from pressure to end up scoring Bs. On the contrary, there are cases where C6 D7 students end up scoring A1. So please note that our table below is in no way a guarantee of how your child will perform. This is our tabulation of how students from different schools could fare in the national examinations when compared to their prelims.
|No||School||Paper difficulty||Marking Stringency||‘O’ level results|
|1||Anglican High||4/5||4/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|2||Bedok South||2.5/5||2.5/5||same or -1 grade from prelim results|
|3||Bedok View||2.5/5||2/5||same or -1 grade from prelim results|
|4||Bedok Green||1.5/5||2/5||same or -1 grade from prelim results|
|5||Chung Cheng High||3.5/5||4/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|6||CHIJ Katong||2.5/5||3/5||same or +1 from prelims|
|7||Dunman High||NA||NA||NA due to IP|
|8||Junyuan||2.5/5||3/5||same or -1 grade from prelims|
|9||Ngee Ann||3.5/5||3.5/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|10||St Patrick’s||2.5/5||2.5/5||same or -1 grade from prelims|
|11||Tanjong Katong Secondary School||3.5/5||3.5/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|12||Victoria||4/5||3.5/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|13||Methodist Girls||4/5||4/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|14||CHIJ Toa Payoh||4/5||4/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|15||Maris Stella High School||3.5/5||3.5/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
|16||Yuying secondary school||2.5/5||2/5||same or -1 grade from prelims|
|17||Zhonghua Secondary School||3/5||3/5||same or +1 grade from prelims|
|18||SJI||4/5||4/5||+1/2 grades from prelim results|
Here is a quick explanation of how to read the chart above:
When a Chung Cheng High student undergoes our tutelage and scores a B3 for prelims, we normally expect him/her to secure an A2 or A1 for ‘O’ level.
When our students from Junyuan secure an A2 for prelims, we tell them to exercise caution because there is a chance that they may slip one grade for ‘O’ level.
These are of course general observations. The English paper is prone to severe upsets. We have had cases of students scoring D7 for prelims but ultimately scoring A1 for ‘O’ level.
While we have taught students from other schools, we do not have enough data to include them in the chart above. If you wish to find out how you will stack up against the ‘O’ level paper, we would be more than glad to assess your standard based on your school papers. Just give us a call or drop us an email.
Even private education centres and tutors practice this!
The bell curve moderation is an open secret in Singapore. However, the specifics are left to the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) alone. Just about every other tuition centre understands the need to set papers that are more difficult than the ‘O’ level standard. Some centres would go as far as to teach ‘A’ level essays to prepare their students for ‘O’ level.
There is a need to push students beyond their limits. However, there is no point preparing them for topics that will never be tested, or worse, stressing them out and causing an exam breakdown. Practical exam experience is of utmost importance. The ‘O’ level students will never be expected to write about international affairs or politics. Ultimately, there is such a thing as being over-prepared, so parents and teachers alike should be wary of it.