Primary School Leaving Examination

The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is a national examination held annually for pupils at the end of their primary school education. Introduced in 1960, the PSLE has undergone many modifications over the years. In the 1960s and ’70s, changes to the PSLE system were mainly concerned with providing alternative educational pathways to pupils who failed the examination. In the ’80s and ’90s, the focus shifted towards fine-tuning the PSLE grading system so that pupils would enter the most appropriate secondary-level academic stream. From the 2000s onwards, the PSLE framework was further tweaked to de-emphasise competition and encourage the holistic development of children. In August 2005, an overseas version of the PSLE was launched. Known as the Singapore International Primary School Examination (iPSLE), it was developed for pupils of overseas primary schools that followed a curriculum similar to that in Singapore.

Historical background
Following the expansion of English-stream primary education after World War II, the Common Standard VI Entrance Examination was introduced in 1952 to provide an equitable system for the selection and placement of pupils in secondary schools. This examination, later renamed the Secondary School Entrance Examination, was used by the English-stream schools up to 1959.1

The Chinese-stream primary schools, on the other hand, had introduced an annual common examination for their final-year pupils in 1935. This examination, however, was discontinued in 1951. In preparation for the establishment of the first Malay-stream secondary classes, a common secondary school entrance examination was introduced for final-year pupils of Malay-stream primary schools in 1959. For Tamil-stream primary schools, pupils in their final year sat for the Federation of Malaya Standard VII (Tamil) examination as there was no separate examination offered in Singapore due to the small number of pupils in this stream.2

Introduction of PSLE
On 30 March 1960, then Minister for Education Yong Nyuk Lin announced the introduction of the PSLE as the new secondary school entrance examination for all four language streams – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.3 As the first national examination in Singapore, the PSLE unified the school-leaving examinations of the different language streams in all government and aided primary schools. Henceforth, a common certification and an equal opportunity to pursue secondary education were accorded to pupils in all four language streams.4

When the PSLE was launched, it was managed by a coordinating committee comprising officials from the Ministry of Education (MOE), as well as principals and teachers in the four language streams. Each language medium was also overseen by a consultative committee. The examination subjects were determined by the MOE, with the coordinating committee and the respective consultative committee providing advice on the scope and weightage of each subject. The PSLE subjects initially comprised the first and second languages, mathematics, science, history and geography, with all examination questions set by the MOE. Marking and scoring were performed by appointed school teachers using common standards.5

The first PSLE was held from 2 to 4 November 1960.Of the 30,615 candidates who sat for the inaugural examination, 13,736 passed and were placed in secondary schools. The 16,879 candidates who failed were divided into four groups based on their age and performance. The first group consisted of 3,042 students who were considered borderline cases. These students were put together in special secondary one classes that entailed two years of intensive study before they took the same secondary two examination as students who had passed the PSLE. Those who passed the secondary two examination were promoted to regular secondary three classes, while the rest were “superannuated” – that is, expelled from the education system. The 8,043 students who formed the second tier had to repeat the primary six level. These students were mostly under the age of 13 and therefore allowed to repeat primary six and retake the PSLE in 1961. The third group, which comprised 5,388 pupils, were deemed too old to remain in primary school and therefore placed in “post-primary classes” for two years of vocational education. The final group of 406 pupils had to leave school as they were above 16 years old and had failed badly in the PSLE.7

Key developments
1960s to 1970s
Starting in 1961, pupils who studied in private schools were allowed to sit for the PSLE.8

In 1963, the MOE changed the PSLE scoring system from one where all subjects carried equal weightage to one that assigned double weightage to the first language. Then in 1973, the second language was also given double weightage to emphasise the importance of bilingualism.9 Prior to 1983, students could opt to take a mother tongue as the first language and English as the second language, and vice versa.10

Beginning in 1963, pupils above the age of 13 who sat for the PSLE and failed were automatically placed in vocational secondary schools to undergo a two-year course.11 The vocational schools were discontinued six years later and overaged pupils who failed the PSLE were superannuated. These pupils, however, could enrol in special classes organised by the Adult Education Board (AEB),12 which offered language courses and basic skills training to help these youths find jobs or pursue further vocational training.13 Starting in 1977, pupils who failed the PSLE three times were provided with six months of education through the AEB’s Basic Course to help ensure that they were sufficiently literate and numerate for further training and employment. Upon completion of the course, the pupils were given three years of on-the-job training and employment in industries under the Junior Trainee Scheme. They were also offered further education at AEB centres.14

As part of MOE’s efforts to improve the primary school curriculum, history and geography were dropped as examinable subjects in the PSLE in 1972 to discourage students from learning by memorising.15

In 1978, the MOE reduced the proportion of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) in most of the PSLE papers from about 70 percent to around 40 percent. The MCQs were replaced by questions that were more subjective and open-ended in nature to develop students’ ability to think and express themselves.16

In 1978, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee led a team to study the problems in Singapore’s education system. The team’s recommendations subsequently formed the basis of the New Education System (NES). Under the NES, PSLE results were used to stream pupils into Special, Express or Normal courses in secondary schools from 1980 onwards.17

At the primary school level, the NES was implemented in 1979 with the streaming of pupils at the end of primary three into normal bilingual, extended bilingual or monolingual courses. The normal bilingual course took six years, at the end of which students sat for the PSLE, while the extended bilingual course was eight years. Pupils under the monolingual course, on the other hand, sat for the Primary School Proficiency Examination (PSPE) instead of the PSLE at the end of their eight-year primary education.18 The first batch of normal bilingual course pupils sat for the PSLE in 1982, while the pioneers in the extended bilingual course sat for the PSLE two years later.19 The first PSPE was also held in 1984, and as the monolingual course was developed to prepare less academically inclined pupils for pre-vocational training, the Basic Course that was introduced in the 1970s was discontinued.20

From 1980 onwards, PSLE results were released in the form of grades for each subject instead of the previous “pass” or “fail” format. A four-point grading system was initially adopted: “A” (75 to 100 marks), “B” (60 to 74 marks), “C” (50 to 59 marks) and “D” (the fail grade of below 50 marks).21 The aggregate transformed score (T-score), which indicated each pupil’s performance against the cohort, was also included in the result slips.22 In the following year, the grading of PSLE results was revised to a five-point system. The “A*” grade was introduced for marks ranging from 91 to 100, while the grade “A” was assigned to papers that scored 75 to 90 marks. The fail grade was also changed from “D” to “F”. The MOE’s reason for introducing the “A*” grade was to send a clearer message to parents who thought that their child had fared well relative to their peers by obtaining the “A” grade, and were thus confused when their child was not placed in the school of their choice.23

Before 1981, pupils had to attain a certain aggregate score in the PSLE in order to pursue secondary education. This minimum aggregate score was decided upon each year and hence differed from year to year. The MOE eased the entry requirements in 1981 in a bid to meet Singapore’s increasing need for trained manpower by allowing more students to pursue further education. Specifically, pupils were able to enter secondary one by satisfying one of two entry requirements: by attaining a certain aggregate score or by passing the first language and two other subjects in the PSLE.24

Following the implementation of English as the main medium of instruction in 1983, English became taught in schools as the first language and mother tongues as the second language.25 Consequently by 1985, science and mathematics PSLE papers in Chinese, Malay and Tamil had been discontinued.26 Pupils who were in primary four to six in 1984, however, were allowed to sit for the PSLE with mother tongue and English as the first and second languages respectively.27

In 1985, the double weightage for both first and second languages in the PSLE was scrapped. This change came about as studies had shown that streaming of pupils into secondary school courses would be more accurate if both language subjects were given equal weightage as mathematics and science.28

In 1992, primary school education was revamped based on the proposals of a review committee tasked to improve Singapore’s education system. The changes started with that year’s primary five cohort. Under the new system, pupils were streamed at the end of primary four into three language streams: EM1, EM2 and EM3 (EM stands for “English and mother tongue”). These streams comprised, respectively, pupils who learnt mother tongue as a first language, as a second language and at an oral proficiency level. The revamped system put an end to the eight-year extended bilingual and monolingual courses as all pupils now sat for the PSLE at the end of primary six. Consequently, a modified PSLE was held for the first time in 1993 where different streams sat for different mother tongue papers and the science paper was not required for EM3 pupils.29 Grading was revised from the previous “A*”, “A”, “B”, “C” and “F” grades to a new system comprising six grades: “A*”, “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “E”.30 The PSLE also became a placement examination to establish the most appropriate secondary school course for each pupil. The goal was to provide youths in Singapore with at least 10 years of general education.31

In 1996, the PSLE for EM3 pupils was further differentiated as this group of pupils was found to have difficulty with the English language and mathematics papers that were common across the three streams. The EM3 pupils sat for foundation English and foundation mathematics instead, and the grading system for all subjects taken by these pupils in the PSLE was changed to “1”, “2”, “3” and “4”.32

2000s to present
In 2003, primary school education was made compulsory in Singapore. Consequently, pupils educated in a madrasah (Islamic school) were also required to take the PSLE starting in 2008.33

In 2004, the EM1 and EM2 streams were merged and schools were given the autonomy to determine which of their students could sit for the higher mother tongue (formerly mother tongue as first language) paper in the PSLE.34 Then in 2008, EM3 was discontinued with the introduction of subject-based banding for that year’s primary five cohort. Subject-based banding allows pupils to study a combination of standard or foundation subjects, with the foundation subjects being simpler versions of the corresponding standard subjects. The combination choice depends on the aptitude of each pupil, who then takes the same subject combination in the PSLE.35

Following the introduction of the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme in 2004, a number of primary school pupils have been able to secure places in secondary schools before sitting for the PSLE. Admissions under the DSA scheme are based on pupils’ academic performance as well as extra-curricular talents and achievements.36

In 2009, the use of calculators was permitted for the first time in the PSLE for the mathematics and foundation mathematics papers.37

A series of changes were made to the PSLE formats for mother-tongue languages starting in 2005 when infrequently used Chinese characters were excluded from the examination.38 The following year, the weightage assigned to the oral and listening component for all mother-tongue papers was increased. PSLE candidates were also allowed to use print dictionaries for the first time when they sat for the mother-tongue composition exams. From 2007 onwards, pupils who sat for Chinese-language papers could use electronic dictionaries for writing essays.39 In 2010, an oral examination for Tamil was introduced.40

The teaching of second languages was revamped in 2012 to encourage children in Singapore to connect with their cultural heritage and communicate using their mother tongue. The revisions – including greater emphasis on interaction skills and oral literacy, as well as greater use of information technology – were implemented starting from that year’s primary one cohort. Mother tongue papers in the PSLE will be revised in 2017 to incorporate these changes.41

In 2013, changes were made to the way English was taught at the upper primary level in order to strengthen pupils’ confidence and creativity in their communication and writing skills. Consequently, the format of the PSLE English-language paper was revised in 2015 to reflect these changes.42

The MOE stopped the tradition of naming the top PSLE scorers in 2012 in order to place greater emphasis on the holistic development of children.43 In the following year, to further de-emphasise competition, the MOE also began to exclude the highest and lowest aggregate scores of pupils in the cohort in the result slips.44 In 2021, the T-score introduced in the 1980s will be scrapped and replaced by a new scoring system that comprises wider scoring bands similar to the grading system for the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary and Advanced level examinations. The new grading system will not be based on each pupil’s performance relative to their peers, so as to reduce competition and stress among children and to encourage them to focus on their own learning instead.45 The highest score for a subject will be Achievement Level (AL) 1, which is similar to the current “A*”, achieved with 90 marks and above. The following grading bands ALs 2, 3 and 4 will have a five-point difference, while subsequent grading bands will be wider, with a total of eight grade bands. The sum of all the banding grades provides the final score – there are 29 possible scores, and the best one is 4 points.46

Singapore International Primary School Examination
The iPSLE is the overseas version of the PSLE. Launched in August 2005 by the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB), the iPSLE was developed for pupils of overseas primary schools adopting a similar curriculum to Singapore primary schools.47 The objective of introducing the iPSLE was to provide overseas schools with a way of benchmarking against Singapore’s education standards.48

The Nasional High Junior School in Jakarta, Indonesia, was the first designated overseas examination centre for the iPSLE.49 By March 2016, 18 overseas centres had been established in countries such as China, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam. The number of iPSLE candidates rose from 22 in 2005 to 2,246 in 2014.50

Currently, iPSLE candidates are required to sit for three compulsory subjects: English, mathematics and science. Other subjects offered include Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and pupils may sit for one more subject in addition to the three compulsory ones. Both the iPSLE and the PSLE share similar standards and testing requirements. Each iPSLE subject is graded “A*”, “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” or “E”, with each candidate’s overall performance indicated by an aggregate score.51

1960: The first PSLE is conducted.
1963: PSLE scoring system is changed from one that gives equal weightage to all subjects to one that gives double weightage to the first language.
1972: History and geography subjects are removed from the PSLE.
1973: PSLE scoring system is changed to give double weightage to both first and second languages.
1980: PSLE results are released in the form of grades for each subject instead of “pass” or “fail”.
1980: PSLE results are used to stream pupils into Special, Express or Normal courses in secondary schools.
1982: First batch of normal bilingual course pupils sits for PSLE.
1984: First batch of extended bilingual course pupils sits for PSLE; first batch of monolingual course pupils sits for PSPE.
1985: Science and mathematics papers in Chinese, Malay and Tamil are discontinued in the PSLE.
1985: PSLE scoring system is changed to give equal weightage to all subjects.
1993: Pupils in the EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams take the first modified PSLE.
1996: Pupils in EM3 sit for the foundation English and foundation mathematics PSLE papers for the first time.
2005: iPSLE is launched for pupils studying in overseas primary schools.
 Pupils of madrasahs are required to take the PSLE for the first time.
2009: EM3 stream is dicontinued with the introduction of subject-based banding in PSLE.
2012: The practice of naming top PSLE scorers is discontinued.
2013: The practice of reporting each cohort’s highest and lowest aggregate scores in the result slips is discontinued.