MTL exemption and the assigned MTL score for students exempted from MTL in the new PSLE AL scoring system

Published Date: 02 September 2019 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng, Jalan Besar GRC


To ask the Minister for Education with regard to the new PSLE scoring system (a) what is the rationale of assigning the lowest 3 levels of the 8 Achievement Levels in Mother Tongue Language (MTL) for Special Educational Needs (SEN) students who are granted exemptions; (b) what is the impact on PSLE results, course eligibility and school choices between the current and new scoring system for MTL exemption; (c) whether the Ministry will consider delaying the implementation of the MTL exemption scoring changes for the current cohorts who will be affected; and (d) whether the Ministry will consider an alternate PSLE aggregate scoring system for SEN students who are granted MTL exemption.


To ask the Minister for Education (a) whether the Ministry will address the concerns of families and educators that Special Educational Needs (SEN) students deemed not suitable to take Mother Tongue Language (MTL) as an examinable subject, are being further disadvantaged at an early age; and (b) whether more inclusive mainstream secondary schools can be developed by modifying the Secondary 1 Direct School Admission system to allow more admissions of SEN students affected by the MTL exemption scoring changes.


To ask the Minister for Education (a) what is the rationale and principle behind according a student an exemption from Mother Tongue Language (MTL) in national exams; and (b) whether this principle aligns with the new PSLE scoring system for MTL exemption.

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Murali Pillai, Bukit Batok GRC


To ask the Minister for Education (a) whether students granted exemption from studying mother tongue languages on medical grounds may be exempted from the new PSLE scoring system taking effect from 2021; (b) what is the number of currently enrolled primary school students who have been exempted from studying mother tongue languages and will now be subject to the new PSLE scoring system from 2021; and (c) what is the rationale for applying the new PSLE scoring system to these students who received exemptions from studying mother tongue languages under the prevailing system.

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Jurong GRC


To ask the Minister for Education with regard to the application of the PSLE scoring system to those students exempt from studying Mother Tongue Languages (a) what are the guiding principles to determine which Achievement Level (AL) the student will score; and (b) whether there is an assessment of how the new scoring system will impact students with learning disabilities or special needs.


1. Today, more than 95% of our students take the MTL examination at the PSLE, at either the Standard or Foundation level. This reflects the centrality of MTL learning in our education system. Learning the MTLs allows us to connect with our communities, and draws on our rich ethnic heritage and culture to build our unique Singapore identity.

2. At the same time, we recognise that for a small group of students, such as those with special educational needs (or SEN) or who have been away from Singapore for prolonged periods, it may be challenging for them to study one of our MTLs. Hence, upon application, we may grant them exemption from MTL. However, there are many students with SEN or who have been away, and who still take MTL, notwithstanding the difficulties they encounter.

3. In any given year, on average, about 4.5% of our students are exempted from MTL. This group of students will take three examinations at the PSLE – English, Mathematics, and Science. Hence, they will receive only three subject scores on their results slip. The question then, is how to use their scores for posting to the next course of study, given that the vast majority of their peers have a score summed up from all four subjects.

4. That is why for purposes of posting, we assign an MTL score for these students by referencing the MTL scores of other students with similar English, Maths and Science scores, including those offering Foundation MTL. This basic approach will not change when we move from the T-score system to the new Achievement Level (or AL) scoring system in 2021.

5. Ms Denise Phua asked about the underlying principles of this practice. The new AL scoring system is based on the level of attainment by the student himself, and moves us away from the approach of the T-score system where a student has to outperform his peers to register a high score. However, when it comes to secondary school posting, the student still needs to use his PSLE Score to compete with other students in order to be admitted into a school of his choice.

6. Our treatment of students exempted from MTL is aligned with these principles. For purposes of deriving AL scores, he was exempted from MTL, so no assessment of his standards took place and he has no score. But for the purposes of secondary school posting, he needs to be compared with other applicants and so we will assign him an MTL score by referencing his peers.

7. We can and must strike a balance between competition among students and self-mastery, but realistically we cannot remove competition totally, and it is also not a reflection of the real life that we are preparing students for.

8. What is specific to the AL system is that the assigned MTL score will range from AL6 to AL8. We have done this considering the vast majority of students who offer an official MTL either at the Standard or Foundation levels.

9. This includes a significant number with SEN, or those who have returned to Singapore after prolonged periods overseas. Currently, about 90% of our Returning Singaporean students study an official MTL, with our schools providing support for their language learning. 70% of students with SEN in mainstream schools also take MTL at PSLE. Many of them take Foundation MTL. As the score range for those taking Foundation MTL is AL6 to AL8, it would be difficult to justify to those offering it why another student who did not sit for the exam could be assigned a higher score.

10. Ms Denise Phua asked about the implications of the new scoring system on course eligibility and school choices. Any student who scores 22 or below will qualify for Express course. Under the current T-score system and the new AL scoring system, the outcomes are similar.

11. Our simulations using the most recent PSLE results show that a similar proportion of students with SEN and are exempted from MTL, would qualify for the Express course under both scoring systems. In any case, by 2024, Express and Normal streams will be phased out. In terms of school choices, if we held choice patterns constant, about 60% of them would secure their first choice secondary school, under both scoring systems.

12. For those concerned about the chances of success to be admitted into specific secondary schools, we have over the past few years significantly expanded places in the Direct School Admission (or DSA) pathway to better recognise talents and achievements across different domains, beyond general academic abilities. Most schools can now admit 20% of their Secondary One intake via DSA, up from 10% in 2017, and many schools have yet to reach this proportion.

13. Schools are also admitting more students with different strengths and backgrounds, including those with SEN. For example, we see students with SEN who are talented in mathematics, science, sports and performing arts, and admitted via DSA into the schools of their choices. MOE and schools will support existing MTL-exempt students affected by the new scoring system in their transition by providing advice on their school choices, and to also explore DSA as an option.

14. We also recognise that our students with SEN put in tremendous effort to cope with their learning. MOE has increased the resources to help students in SPED schools, and students with SEN in mainstream schools will also benefit from learning support programmes as well as allied educators for learning and behavioural support. MOE is committed to continue working with schools in providing the support needed to prepare our students for the PSLE changes.

15. Members also asked if we could delay the implementation of the scoring changes for current cohorts or consider an alternative PSLE scoring system for students with SEN. Given that we are changing the national exam scoring system, it would not be feasible for a small group to remain under the T-score system or to use an aggregate score of three scores, as their scores would not be comparable with the aggregate scores of other students for purposes of secondary school posting.

16. Ultimately in grading, scores have to reflect standards, instead of effort or circumstances. Those are relevant factors, but we should exercise that judgement during admission mechanisms like the DSA, instead of compromising the consistency and the integrity of the assessment and grading system.

17. Mr Speaker, performance at the PSLE is just one checkpoint in a child’s education journey, and it is not the final judgement of a child’s ability or potential. The changes to the PSLE scoring, expansion of DSA and journey to Full Subject-Based Banding (Full SBB) aim to shift our education system away from an over-emphasis on academic results, and encourage our students to focus on their own learning. Fundamentally, we want an education system with multiple pathways and opportunities, so that every child can maximise his or her potential and be placed in good stead for the future.

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