Sunday 18 October 2009

I want to be 'up in arms' over PSLE maths paper too, but...

Every few years it seems, parents are “up in arms” over how ridiculously hard a Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) paper is.

This year, it was going to be my turn. My oldest child took the PSLE two weeks ago.

I’ve never been “up in arms” before. I was looking forward to it. I even started working out.

And right on cue last week, parents were up in arms over this year’s PSLE mathematics paper.

One parent complained in the AsiaOne forum: "My son was so sad and lost his confidence when he finished the paper.

"Why make it so tough for kids in Singapore? Every year, we hear about how PSLE Maths kill the children's confidence and drain them so much that after the paper, they would lied flat on the bed."

Another one wrote: "My daughter cried the moment she came out of the school gate after the Maths paper.

"I understand that even if the question is super tough, it is still a 'fair exam' as all student are subjected to the same question.

"However, the issue here is what is the rationale for setting questions far beyond a reasonable level ... and if this is 'fair' to a kid."

I want to join in this indignation, but...

Okay, there’s no way I can say this without sounding like I’m bragging even though I’m not, but here goes: My son thought the PSLE maths paper was easy.

Not “so-so” or even a non-committal shrug, which is how he usually communicates nowadays. He actually used the word “easy”. And he's not that good a student.

At first, I was somewhat relieved that this could be one of those years when the Ministry of Education decided not to kill the children’s confidence – then I heard about the complaints that the exam was too hard. Was this the same exam that my son took?

So I asked him if he was sure the maths paper was easy. “Yes!” he snapped, annoyed by my incredulity.

Now I’m really worried. Why can’t he lose confidence like the other kids?

The trouble with my son is that in the past, whenever he thought an exam was easy, he usually did worse than expected. And when he thought the exam was tough, he did surprisingly well, possibly because he was less complacent.

Unfortunately, as parents, we can’t really gauge whether a PSLE paper is actually “too” difficult.

Usually, someone would cite an exam question that most educated grown-ups couldn’t answer to show how unfairly difficult the paper is for the children.

But this is hardly a reliable indicator because as an educated grown-up, I can’t even do my daughter’s homework – and she is in Primary 4.

“Didn’t you go to university?” she would sass me.

“Yes, but I got only a basic degree in journalism,” I would retort. “Not a PhD in primary school maths!”

“Then what are you good for?” she would ask.

I wonder that myself.

As for my son, I can’t do anything about his PSLE now, except wait for next month’s results and cry then.

And in two years, I’ll be doing it all over again with my daughter. It will be my last chance to be “up in arms”. I have a feeling she won’t let me down.

- Published in The New Paper, 18 October 2009