Chua Mui Hoong missed the point about not releasing top PSLE score

Chua Mui Hoong wrote an op-ed piece in ST lamenting MOE’s move not to release the top PSLE scores and the names of the students who achieved those scores. She seem to feel that this is as if we are no longer celebrating success. She writes: “I hope Singapore has not acquired a bad dose of the tall poppy syndrome, where people look askance at other people’s achievements and want to tear them down, and where high achievers then feel the need to keep their heads down for fear of drawing unwanted envious attention.” In making that statement, she made a number of very questionable assumptions.

First, Chua Mui Hoong assumed that because MOE doesn’t name top scorers, the top scorers now feel much less satisfied with their achievement. Really? You mean students who scored really great scores in their PSLE need to have their names and faces plastered in ST before they feel shiok about scoring above 280 for their PSLE? I highly doubt so. Even without the public attention, I am sure that the kids who scored above 280 are still pretty chuffed about their results.

Second, related to the first point, Chua Mui Hoong assumed that top scorers will now hem and haw when asked about their PSLE scores. I highly doubt that would happen. Come Chinese New Year, I am sure the parents of kids who scored above 280 will still go around bragging about their kids results. Only that they can’t haolian that their kid is the top or one of however many who scored above 280. And… what’s wrong with that?

Third, Chua Mui Hoong assumed that just because the top score and top scorer isn’t released to the voyeuristic public, we have stopped celebrating academic achievement. Many schools still acknowledge very publicly the students who have done exceptionally well. Chua Mui Hoong herself observed, “A few schools’ websites list photos and names of their top scorers – but in alphabetical order.” Isn’t that already celebrating the academic achievement of students who have done exceptionally well in the PSLE? Isn’t it enough that those in the immediate social circle of the students who scored well know of their achievement and thus can congratulate them? Why is there a need to go even further and let all of Singapore know? What value does that add to the students?

And what’s wrong in not revealing the exact PSLE score the student got? What meaningful difference is there between a student who scored 287 and another who scored 288? Is the student who got 288 really better than the one who scored 287? The answer is… No. PSLE scores are statistical in nature. Like anything statistical, there is a range before any difference is statistically significant. For PSLE, the range certainly isn’t just a single point. It would probably be more like… 5 points (i.e. a student who scored 290 may really be better than a student who scored 285). So there really is no value-add in revealing the exact score for the top students.

Fourth, Chua Mui Hoong assumes that not revealing the PSLE top score and top scorer means we have missed a chance to “teach our children to feel both pride and gratitude in their achievements; and to feel both admiration and aspiration in the face of others’.” Again, I’m sure you don’t need to know the PSLE top score nor know who are the PSLE top scorers to achieve any of that. If we do, then our whole education system is a failure. And parents too, would be failures. Then no need to talk about PSLE results. We are doomed as a nation.

Fifth, Chua Mui Hoong assumes that kids actually do want this sort of recognition. She says, “We should certainly not deny 12-year-olds, who have worked hard in their studies, the recognition they deserve for their hard work.” Has she spoken to any kid who scored above 280, and could potentially have been featured as a PSLE top scorer, and found that he/she was downcast, depressed and upset that he/she didn’t get a chance to have his moment of fame because MOE has decided not to announce the PSLE top score and top scorer? I don’t think she did. And if she had tried, I don’t think she’ll find any such kid. This is from my personal experience, which, though not statistically representative, might well be indicative.

A few friends of mine have had their names mentioned in the news for doing extremely well in national exams. To them the news reports added nothing to their sense of satisfaction, their pride and joy that they have done well. Because to them, it was enough that they did well. Some of them were happy because their parents were happy. And they certainly appreciated it when their friends and close relatives congratulated them. None of those were contingent on having their names and faces plastered in the media. Similarly, I am sure kids who scored above 280 will still be able to enjoy all of that form of recognition, which is actually meaningful, even without MOE announcing the PSLE top score and top scorer.

Finally, and I think this is most important, Chua Mui Hoong assumes that parents and students are actually inspired by the release of the top score and top scorers to do better. I doubt that the performance of our students has varied significantly since we stopped announcing top score and top scorers. I don’t have any data to prove one way or another. But we will know once the next PISA and TIMMS reports are released. I would be very surprised if Singapore’s performance in those evaluations changes much.

I do agree with one point that Chua Mui Hoong made. We should not be a society “where people look askance at other people’s achievements and want to tear them down”. Unfortunately, I suspect that there was a good proportion of people who already had that kind of attitude when they looked at the top PSLE scorers in the past. If they pushed their children to do better, it wasn’t because they were inspired, but because they were envious. And… well… we’ve all heard of how some people will gossip and make snide remarks about the PSLE results of other kids. Oh, so-and-so did well only because of tuition la. Oh… see la. PSLE do so well but now only so-so only. Since a long time ago, we have already been that sort of a society that Chua Mui Hoong was cautioning us not to be. In fact, I believe that news about PSLE top score and top scorers exacerbates the problem by breeding more envy and resentment. That’s why I believe that not announcing the PSLE top score and top scorers is a good move away from that sort of a society.

So that is why I think Chua Mui Hoong has completely missed the point about not releasing the PSLE top score and top scorers.

[Featured image: from Asiaone.com]

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