School ranking

Rankings of secondary schools and junior colleges (JCs) based on academic performance were first published by The Straits Times in 1992. The ranking was sanctioned by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and the key objective was to help parents and students make informed decisions on school choices.1 The school ranking became an annual exercise thereafter, undergoing a number of changes over time, including the shift to a banding system in 2004.2 In 2012, the ranking system was abolished after MOE decided to push for a school culture that emphasises less on academic achievements, but more on providing a holistic and well-rounded education.3

Introduction of school ranking
Secondary schools
Sanctioned by MOE, a comprehensive ranking of secondary schools in Singapore based on academic performance was first published by The Straits Times on 19 August 1992.4 Data on the schools’ performance as well as their rankings for the “ST Schools 100” were provided by MOE.5

Prior to the introduction of the ranking system, schools were “ranked” informally by parents and students.6 A formal school ranking system was therefore created to help parents and pupils make informed decisions on secondary school choices.7 As such, the rankings, which were initially dubbed the “ST Schools 100”, were published several weeks before primary six pupils had to decide on the top six secondary schools they would like to attend in the following year.8

In developing the ranking system, a survey involving 313 parents and pupils was conducted. As the survey findings showed that schools which produced good GCE O-level examination results were most valued by the respondents, academic performance was used as the basis for the formal school ranking exercise.9

The published rankings comprised separate tables for the Special/Express course and the Normal course, so that the two courses would not be compared directly. The top 50 secondary schools in the Special/Express stream and the top 40 in the Normal stream were sorted and ranked, based on each school’s mean subject grade (MSG). The MSG was derived by summing the grades of all subjects obtained in the 1991 GCE O-level examinations, and then dividing the sum by the number of students in the school who sat for the examinations.10

In addition, to give recognition to schools that helped their students improve academically, the top 15 of such value-added schools from the Special/Express and Normal streams respectively were also listed in the published rankings.11 This ranking was measured by comparing the PSLE results of the school’s students with the scores they attained in the GCE O-level examinations four or five years later.12

Junior colleges
In the same year, a similar comprehensive ranking of the 14 JCs in Singapore was made available for the first time in The Straits Times on 28 November 1992.13 The ranking of JCs was also sanctioned by MOE, with data for the rankings provided by the ministry.14

In developing the ranking system, a survey was conducted with 336 parents and students to find out what factors they considered when choosing a JC. The most important factor, as cited by the respondents, was the GCE A-level examination performance, followed closely by the number of students who passed the examinations. Based on the findings, JCs were ranked based on the quality and quantity of each college’s performance for the 1991 GCE A-level examinations. Quality was derived from the scores of all subjects obtained by its students in the examinations, while quantity was measured by the percentage of its students who obtained three A-level passes.15

As in the case of secondary schools, a comparison of the JCs’ A-level examination performance against their students’ O-level results attained two years ago was also published. This set of information helped emphasise that good colleges are not just those that take in the best students and produce good results, but also include value-adding colleges that accept weaker students and help improve their academic performance.16

Changes over time
The detailed rankings of secondary schools and JCs became an annual exercise following its introduction in 1992, with a number of changes made over time.17

From 1994 onwards, rankings of secondary schools and JCs with the fittest students were also published. The data was based on students’ performance in the National Physical Fitness Award test in each school as well as the percentage of overweight students.18 MOE’s objective of publishing the data was to emphasise the importance of physical fitness, in addition to academic performance.19

In the same year, MOE devised an improved method for identifying high-value-added schools. Known as PRISM, short for “Performance Indicators for School Management”, the new tool allowed schools to be assessed on a more comparable basis.20 PRISM was introduced to all 151 secondary schools in 1994, and thereafter to the 14 JCs in 1995.21

In 1997, MOE introduced a new set of criteria for the ranking of secondary schools, which was to replace the MSG indicator. Secondary schools were ranked based on their students’ scores in the first language and best five subjects for the Special/Express stream, and for the Normal stream, the first language and best four subjects.22 The change was prompted by feedback that the use of MSG had discouraged schools from offering subjects that students considered difficult and harder to score.23 The ranking of JCs, however, was still based on MSG.24

Banding of schools
In 2004, MOE introduced a major change to the secondary school ranking exercise: Ranking based on exact academic scores was no longer provided; instead, schools were grouped into nine bands, with each band comprising schools with similar academic performance.25 The top 50 Special/Express and top 40 Normal course ranking tables, which had been published for 12 years from 1992 to 2003, were henceforth replaced by School Achievement Tables.26 In addition to displaying academic performance in bands, the new tables also highlighted the schools’ academic performance in terms of their value-add, as well as achievements in non-academic fields such as the arts and sports.27

The shift in the secondary school ranking system sent a strong signal that academic excellence would no longer be the sole measure of success.28 It aimed to encourage schools to deliver a holistic education and a wider range of experiences to their students, so as to create a learning environment that would nurture creativity and talents beyond the academic field.29

Discontinuation of ranking
Junior colleges
Besides changing the secondary school ranking system, another radical move that took place in 2004 was the discontinuation of JC rankings.30

Reasons for scrapping the rankings included more equal performance levels among JCs compared with secondary schools, as well as the small number of colleges in the rankings.31 Of the 17 JCs at the time, at least five would be offering the Integrated Programme (IP), which allows students with strong academic performance to proceed to JCs without taking the GCE O-level examinations.32 With only 12 or fewer non-IP JCs remaining, any comparison among these and the IP colleges would fail to draw much meaningful data.33

With the discontinuation of the JC ranking list, the JC honour roll was introduced to highlight achievements not only in the value-added aspect, but also in non-academic areas such as best practices, aesthetics and physical fitness.34 The overall awards recognition for all schools was, however, reduced in 2014.35

Secondary schools
On 12 September 2012, MOE announced the abolishment of secondary school banding by academic results with immediate effect. The change was part of the ministry’s effort to enable every school in Singapore to excel in delivering a student-centric, values-driven and well-rounded education.36 The decision thus ended a 20-year period during which secondary schools were judged primarily by their academic performance.37

To help parents and students make informed choices on the selection of schools, pertinent information of each school, including detailed descriptions of its programmes and strengths, has been made available in the School Information Service – a search engine on MOE’s website – as well as in the Secondary 1 Posting Booklet.38

The school ranking exercise, which was meant to help parents and students make informed school choices, had raised concerns since the beginning that it would demoralise principals, teachers and students of low-ranking schools, and create unhealthy competition among schools.39 The media reported about pressure on schools from parents to improve examination results during the 1990s. Critics also felt that the overemphasis on academic performance was at the expense of other aspects of a well-rounded education, such as sports, the arts and character development.40

Repeated calls had been made to MOE to discontinue the rankings by various parties, including principals, parents, members of parliament as well as the Remaking Singapore Committee formed in 2003.41

The moves to scrap rankings of JCs in 2004 and subsequently secondary schools in 2012 were cheered by many educators. Some parents, on the other hand, were less positive: Without the availability of comparisons, the task of choosing schools for their children was made more difficult.42