Primary School Leaving Examination

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The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is a national examination in Singapore that is administered by the Ministry of Education and taken by all students near the end of their sixth year in primary school before they move on to secondary school. The examination tests students' proficiency in the English language, their respective mother tongue languages (typically Chinese, Malay, Tamil or other Indian language), mathematics and science. Students have around two hours to complete each subject paper except for certain components of language subjects. Students answer multiple choice questions by shading their responses on a standardised optical answer sheet (OAS) that uses optical mark recognition to detect answers or by writing their workings and/or answers on the question booklet itself for certain sections of the paper.

The format of the PSLE and the presence of it in the Singapore education system gives it a part in national culture. PSLE material has also been exported to other countries. Some schools abroad (such as Nasional High Junior School in Jakarta, Indonesia), particularly in Southeast Asia, have their pupils sit the international version of the exam, the iPSLE, to provide a benchmark of their performance, compared to Singapore's standards.[1]

Examination subjects and procedure[edit]

The format of the examinations within the PSLE has been revised consistently throughout its history to suit the Ministry of Education's policy. However, the standard examination procedure has retained many of the same elements throughout the years despite changes being made to the requirements of each question, the score allocated to each question and the revisions in emphasis.[2]

On 13 July 2016, Ministry of Education has officially announced the latest revision to the PSLE Scoring System. The aggregate score for the PSLE will be replaced with wider scoring bands from 2021.

The current T-score system grades students very finely. It is unnecessary at the young age to make such fine distinctions between children. Some people believe that a student who scores 231 is better than another student who scores 230, but it is not educationally meaningful to differentiate so finely between the two. Hence, by having a wider scoring bands, it would mean that students in the same band are similar academically.

Scores will reflect students own level of achievement, instead of comparing them to their peers. The current T-score system reflects a student's relative performance against the rest of his cohort. A student may score well for all his subjects but receive a lower T-score if the rest of the cohort scores better. The new scoring system allows students to focus on their own learning outcomes. As long as they meet the learning objectives of the curriculum, they will score the corresponding achievement level. This is the breakdown of the AL grade:

AL1: 90 and above AL2: 85-89 AL3: 80-84 AL4: 75-79 AL5: 65-74 AL6: 45-64 AL7: 20-44 AL8: Below 20[3]

From 2021, choice will matter when it comes to secondary school admissions. Pupils will get a choice of six schools and have to rank these choices in order of their preference. If two pupils have the same PSLE score and have chosen the same school, the one who has put it down as a first choice will get priority over the one who listed it as a second choice. Computerised balloting will be used as a tie-breaker if there are two pupils with the same PSLE score and citizenship status, vying for a place in a school for which they have both listed in the same choice order.To get into the Express stream, pupils need to get a PSLE score of 22 or less, instead of a PSLE aggregate score of around 188 currently. For the Normal (Academic) stream, a score of 25 or less is needed, and for the Normal (Technical) stream, a score of 30 or less.

There will be adjustments to Secondary One (S1) posting, introducing choice order as a new tiebreaker for S1 posting.

Language examination and qualification[edit]

To test the students' grasp of the language subjects, such as the English language or the mother tongue languages at the end of primary school, there are several separate examinations. As the student is usually required to take examinations for both his/her mother tongue language and the English language (with the exceptions of exemption or additional languages), the average student repeats the following procedures twice. With each mother tongue subject, there are three levels of examination, the standard level, the foundational level and the separate and optional "Higher Mother Tongue" subject. A student will have to choose between standard and foundational mother tongue based on his/her proficiency in the language. Whether a Higher Mother Tongue subject is taken also depends on the student's proficiency in the language. English, Mathematics and Science are available at the standard and foundational levels. A student can opt to take different subjects at different levels. In the past, whether a student took Higher Mother Tongue or not was determined by which stream he/she was in, namely the EM1 (higher) stream and the EM2 (standard) stream. These streams had the same standard subjects except for the additional EM1 subject of Higher Mother Tongue, which differentiated the streams. This streaming was based on the overall performance of the student when he/she was in Primary Four, his/her fourth year in primary school. There was also an EM3 (foundational) stream, in which a student took all four subjects (English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics and Science) at the foundational level. EM3 Science (a foundation Science curriculum for the EM3 stream) was not available then, it will be only available from 2010, and also the new science syllabus. From 2007, Primary Four pupils underwent subject-based rather than overall streaming, so that the labels EM1, EM2 and EM3 disappeared, leaving only the options to take different subjects at the standard or foundational level and the option of taking Higher Mother Tongue. At the end of Primary Four, the students' parents decide their combination of subjects. At the end of Primary Five, the school will make the final decision on the student's combination of subjects.

The examination format tends to vary by language, but each language examination usually has:

  • Composition writing (Paper 1), which tests students' composition skills and their proficiency in writing in various scenarios. It is divided into two parts: situational writing (letters, e-mails, reports, etc.) and continuous writing (narrative or recount). Both parts (Situational writing and Continuous writing) need to be attempted.
  • Comprehension and Language Use (Paper 2), which tests students' understanding of a passage and written use of the language (such as grammar, punctuation, vocabulary). It carries majority of marks in that language.
  • Listening Comprehension (sometimes referred to as Paper 3), which tests students' ability to comprehend speech in daily situations. It usually contains six to seven passages.
  • Oral examination (sometimes referred to as Paper 4), which tests students' proficiency in speaking the language.

English language[edit]

The oral examination for the English language usually lasts about ten minutes per student; however, students are of the examination, the examination is often divided into two days of two separate sets of material each to reduce the inefficiency caused by the waiting time.

The maximum score for this examination is 30. The oral examination is divided into three sections: students are required to read a passage fluently (also known as Reading Aloud), this being graded on a score of 10. The students are then required to answer some questions about an advertisement given (Stimulus-based conversation). The examination is judged by two teachers who have to agree on a single score for each student.

A listening comprehension examination will test the students' ability to comprehend the spoken English language in various daily situations, and is composed of twenty multiple choice questions which is based on information contained in audio played to the students, and the examination is taken as a class, not individually. Usually, questions will be based on one of seven passages in different scenarios. This particular examination lasts around 35 minutes, with the maximum score being 20.

There is a two-section composition question consisting of situational writing, where students write an informal or a formal letter, informal or formal email, recipe, book or movie review, memo, note, report or even combination of multiple formats, e.g. a recipe in an email.

The next section is on continuous writing, which access candidates of their basic writing abilities and language thought process. From 2015 onwards, the examination format has been revised and candidates now only have one choice of continuous writing. A series of 3 pictures will be provided to the candidates and a general theme is given. Candidates are required to use one, some or all of the picture to write a continuous writing. This changed the previous separated picture based composition and situational based writing to bring about more creativity for candidates to have when writing the composition.

These two sections last a total of 1 hour and 10 minutes. The situational writing has a maximum score of 15; and the continuous writing has a maximum score of 40. Two teachers are required to grade a composition paper, and the disparity in scoring made by each teacher should be minimal, and the average of the scoring taken if the disparity is small to yield the score for the questions. If the disparity is too large, the question papers are required to be re-graded, this time with three teachers.

The essay section in particular usually avoids giving questions requiring logical argument and favours scenic or event description. This stands in contrast to some of the questions often asked in the GCE Ordinary Level (O-level) examination.

The final examination testing the students' proficiency in the language is a written paper which tests the student's comprehension of the written language being tested, and usually lasts about 1 hour and 50 minutes in length. It has a total score value of 95.

Multiple choice questions are given in the first section of the written paper; students will first answer multiple-choice questions on grammar, where students are required to spot a mistake in tense and provide the correct conjugate or word form, or provide correct punctuation which as of 2015 has a weight of 10. It also tests vocabulary the students are required to choose a word from a list that fills in a blank that will express a sentence logically, with a current weight of 5. A vocabulary cloze is then given, also with a weightage of 5. The next section is the Visual Text Comprehension, where candidates are required to study a visual stimulus(advertisement,flyer, etc.). A writeup will be given for the candidate to evaluate. Using these, the candidates have to answer question related to both of them, each weighting 1 mark for 8 questions.

Next in Booklet B, candidate will be given a grammar cloze, where they will be given a list of verbs and tenses to fill in the blanks of a short passage for 10 marks. Next will be Editing, where candidates are required to provide recorrection to spelling, grammatical and punctuational error in a text, which weights 12 marks. Next will be the Comprehension Close, where candidates are required to interpret a passage and fill in the blanks in the passage using an appropriate word. This weights 15 marks. Next, the students will be given Synthesis and Transformation. It mainly focuses on the knowledge of sentence structures. Mostly there are 5 questions each worth 2 marks. After this, students will be given a comprehension passage. Under the revised format, candidates will be given a wide variety of questions, such as ticking boxes and filling in the blanks which overall weighs 20 marks, which revises the 2005 format of having 10 open end question that requires candidates to answer in a sentence or two. A cloze passage with a total of ten items and a weight of 10 is provided to the student; the passage tests grammar specifically. Following this ten sentences with highlighted spelling and grammar mistakes which are supposed to be copyedited, with a total weight of 10. After this, students are given a cloze passage testing comprehension as opposed to grammar, which currently has a weight of 15 in which they fill in blanks with words on their own. Students are then given a passage to comprehend, and will have to answer ten open-ended questions with a total weight of 20.

To yield the final grade for the student taking the language, all of the students' examination scores for that language are added; as the maximum total score is 200, the total is divided by 200% to yield the students' percentage score for the language subject. The format described is the format of 2013; it varies slightly in weight for each section, with deletions of some sections if the student is taking Foundation English as part of the foundational stream.

Science examination and qualification[edit]

A science (Standard) paper is 1 hour and 45 minutes long. Students are given 28 (30 before 2017) multiple choice questions with a weightage of 2 marks each, thus a maximum score of 56 (60 before 2017). 16 (14 before 2017) open-ended questions, with a weightage of 0.5, 1, 2 or up to 4 marks each, measure proficiency in several units of the curriculum, with a total weightage of (44 in the new syllabus introduced in 2017) 40. The questions in the examination paper are set to test concepts instead of memorised knowledge, hence assessing the true science ability of pupils. The syllabus covers various aspects of chemistry, physics and biology, and basic interpretation of statistics on a primary school level. These distinctions into different fields are not made in the examination format but can be derived based on the different themes:


  • Magnets
  • Forces
  • Living together
  • Food chains and food webs
  • Adaptations
  • Man's impact on his environment


  • Classification of living and non-living things
  • Plants
  • Animals
  • Fungi and Bacteria
  • Materials


  • Light and shadows
  • Heat and temperature
  • Energy in food
  • Kinetic energy
  • Potential energy


  • Life cycles of animals and plants
  • Matter
  • Reproduction in humans and plants
  • Water cycle


  • Human body systems
  • Plant systems
  • Respiratory system
  • Circulatory system
  • Cells
  • Electrical systems
  • Electrical Circuits


The mathematics examination in the PSLE is often one of its most distinctive elements due to its format and style in contrast to most other examinations in other countries. The examination is 2 hours and 30 minutes long, and is divided into three booklets. Paper 1 includes Booklet A and Booklet B (50 minutes) while Paper 2 (1 hour and 40 minutes) is in one whole booklet itself. Booklet A is multiple choice and consists of fifteen questions, the first ten being one point each in score value, and the other five being two points, and account for 20% of the examination score in total. Booklet B requires open-ended input, and comprises 15 questions, the first ten questions are worth one point and the other five questions are worth two points. They usually require little effort from the students and are meant to test individual knowledge components of the student. Paper 2 is worth a total of 60 points, and consists of several questions which are worth from 2 to 5 points. The questions are usually arranged in escalating difficulty, and some of the questions towards the end have received a degree of controversy from parents and educators from other countries. From 2009, the use of calculators were allowed in only Paper 2 of the Mathematics examination.

Long-answer questions in the PSLE worth four or five marks tend to be in two types, a heuristic type of question, which may require students to form a new theorem, concept or algorithm from pre-existing knowledge to solve the question, although this does not have to be shown; however a logical statement and evidence connecting the question to the answer has to be shown to be awarded marks.

The mathematics examination in the PSLE has faced complaints from parents who complain about material outside the syllabus, while facing criticism from some educators from overseas who argue that the examination eventually encourages rote learning rather than actual conceptual knowledge based on incentives to the student. The 2005 paper drew criticism due to the poor setting of one of the multiple-choice questions, as mentioned below.

Scoring and post-examination procedure[edit]

Although the students have an absolute score, each student's absolute score are compared with other students to yield an aggregate score, and the students are ranked according to that basis. This allows the examination to accommodate for overly easy or overly difficult questions. Contrary to popular belief, the PSLE aggregate score has no ceiling of 300. In 2007, for example, the highest aggregate score for the PSLE was 294 and the lowest aggregate score was 87. The lowest score for 2011's PSLE was 43 but the highest score was 283.[4]

All examination scripts are shipped to the Ministry of Education for processing, which then sends them to other teachers in Singapore on a random basis for marking. Part of this procedure is to prevent possible bias in marking, either intentional or unintentional, that may result when teachers mark examination scripts of students from their own schools. Also, the names of the students are not attached to the scripts when the scripts are sent for marking, the scripts are labelled by the student's PSLE index number. The multiple choice questions are graded by a machine in the Ministry of Education, which reads the optical answer sheets.

Pupils who fail the PSLE are retained in primary school to retake the PSLE in the foundation stream the following year or they will go to a school called "Northlight" where they will learn primarily vocational, emphasise on developing emotional strength and life skills

Pupils who pass are required to choose up to six secondary schools to which they would be posted by aggregate score. A computer will then allocate slots to each school's intake for the next year. In line with the ideals of meritocracy, all pupils who attempted the PSLE would be "queued" in order of merit, with the places in schools being filled up from the highest scorer to the lowest scorer. Thus the pupil with a higher aggregate score would get into his school of second choice (if he was not accepted into his school of first choice) over a pupil with a lower aggregate score who chose the same school as the first choice. The score of the last pupil who was allocated is known as the "cut-off score" for the school for that year.

If none of the six schools chosen accept the pupil, the Ministry of Education will work towards finding a school based on proximity and location, rather than academic excellence of the school, without consulting the student. This makes proper selection of the six choices important. Priority organisation of the choices is also important; if the pupil's score both meets the requirements of the school of his or her third choice and second choice for example, the second choice will be allocated without the pupil being able to change his or her decisions.

Before 2003, pupils picked their choices before they took the examination and received their score. From 2003, pupils picked their choices after they received their score, after complaints by parents they could not make informed choices about their children's secondary schools before the examination scores were received, as the pupils might perform much better or much worse than expected.

History and past performance[edit]

The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) was modeled after the British Eleven plus exam (11+) and was first conducted in 1960. Its predecessor was the Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE), which was conceived in 1952 when it was known as the Standard Six Entrance Examination up to 1954 and then as Secondary School Entrance Examination when the primary school classes were no longer named as Primary 1 &2 and the standard 1 to 5 and started from Primary 1 to 6 instead. Promotion was tot Form 2 in the secondary school instead of the previous Standard Six starting from January 1955, during the early days of self-government.[5]

The 2008/2009 PSLE Papers[edit]

Though complaints were made about the 2007 PSLE Papers being out of syllabus and too challenging, this continued in the 2008 PSLE Paper. The difficult questions in the papers were intended to filter the average and below average students, as explained by the Ministry of Education.

In 2009, such things happened again, with plenty of students unable to finish the maths paper. The entry scores for schools in 2009 dropped for many schools. For example, Hwa Chong Institution and National Junior College saw their PSLE cut-off point drop by two marks.[citation needed]


The score is calculated based on a bell curve. For example, if many do well in a paper, there is a potential reduction of the raw score and vice versa, despite differences in performances each year. For example, an average student would get a score of 210+ if he/she scored 3 low As and a high B. A highly proficient student would easily get a score of 250 and above if they scored 2 or 3 A*s and high As.

In each examination subject, a T-Score is computed based on the raw examination score as follows:


T is the T-Score;
x is the student's raw score;
μ is the mean (i.e. average) raw score;
σ is the standard deviation of raw scores.

By definition then, the average T-Score in each subject is 50. Since there are four examination subjects, the average aggregate score is always 200.


In 2005, 51,087 pupils sat for the examination, a 0.4% increase from the previous year. The majority (or 97.8%) of the pupils qualified for secondary school. 62.2% of those who passed were eligible for the Special/Express course and the remaining 35.6% were eligible for either the Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) courses. 1133 pupils (2.2%) of the cohort assessed was not ready for secondary school in 2006 or are more suited for vocational training.

39,286 students sat for the PSLE in 2015. The Ministry of Education (MOE) said that a total of 38,610 students (98.3 per cent) were eligible for secondary school. 66.2 per cent of them qualified for the Express stream, 21.7 per cent for Normal (Academic), and 10.4 per cent qualified for Normal (Technical).

In general, having good grades does not necessarily translate into having good aggregate scores. From the data, we can see that students with lower grades have achieved better aggregate scores than others with better grades. For example, a particular Student X scored 233 with grades of 2As and 2Bs, bettering a Student Y who scored 221 with 4As.

To understand why, we can assume the following rationale:

a) Student X had lower grades but scored at the higher end of the grade mark range for each subject.

Scores per subject: 90(A), 90(A), 74(B), 74(B)

Total score: 328

Average score: 82

b) Student Y had higher grades but scored at the lower end of the grade mark range for each subject.

Scores per subject: 75(A), 75(A), 75(A), 75(A)

Total score: 300

Average score: 75

Averaging these results will show that Student X with the lower grades ended up with the higher overall average score.

In general, those looking to join an Integrated programme (IP) will need to be prepared to attain a minimum grade combination of 3A*1A, or obtain scores on the highest end of the grade mark range of 2A*2A.

Students with grades poorer than 2A2B will most likely received aggregate scores that are below 200.

While most students with 4Bs or better received aggregate scores above 188, qualifying them for Express stream, a minority of students with 4Bs had aggregate scores lower than 188, which meant they had to take up Normal courses.

Students with less than 4Cs have a high chance of being streamed into Normal (Technical) courses.

Controversy on flaws in papers[edit]

The 2005 mathematics paper for EM1 and EM2 students was flawed due to a question having no definite method of working the answer out. The "Question 13" was spotted by many and became infamous. The question was mathematically inconsistent in that one will get one set of answers when worked out one way and another set of answers when worked out by a different method. The Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) acknowledged the mistake a few days after the examination, annulling the question and awarding 2 marks to every student for the question.[6]

Other methods of admission to secondary schools[edit]

Students have the choice to go to other schools which do not use the posting system. Some of the top schools and the government schools have Direct School Admission (DSA). Some can go to other schools such as Singapore Sports School, NUS High School of Mathematics and Science or School of the Arts and School of Science and Technology.

Direct School Admission[edit]

Independent schools and Autonomous schools can admit up to 20% and 10% of their students via the Direct School Admission scheme (DSA) respectively. Students apply through exercises conducted by the schools around July and August, receiving notice of the results shortly after. Schools offering the Integrated Programme (IP) can take in as many students as they want via DSA. Other schools have also been granted permission by the Ministry of Education to take in students specialising in the schools' niche areas up to a maximum of 5% of their total student intake.[7]

International schools[edit]

Since 2004, two international schools were given licenses to operate under the Ministry of Education's compulsory practices such as playing the national anthem, and following the nation's bilingual policies, to allow Singaporean or Singapore Permanent Resident students to enter without the Ministry of Education's permission. These schools were granted the permission in April 2004 and started the school year in January 2005. They are Anglo-Chinese School (International) and Hwa Chong International School. Another school was granted the permission to set up a school similar to the original two in 2006, the school is SJI International School, which offers a similar programme to ACS (International).

Singapore Sports School[edit]

The Singapore Sports School is for students who are perceived by the school to excel in sports it offers. This includes swimming, badminton, table tennis, soccer, golf, track and field, and sailing. It was opened in January 2004 and the school takes students directly into the school provided they have an active background in the sports offered by the school. When the school had its first intake, many students applied who were judged to excel in their sport but were posted to the Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) streams. The school rejected these pupils as the school sought pupils who excelled both physically and academically. The school was criticised for being too result wise instead of grooming them into future sportspeople. Some of the students were finally accepted on an appeal basis after that. Students in the school aim for the International Baccalaureate (IB) paper, similar to the Singapore Arts School.

NUS High School[edit]

The NUS High School of Mathematics and Science opened in 2005 with an intake of 225 Secondary 1 and 3 students, offering a six-year programme leading to the NUS High Diploma. Students will also sit for Advanced Placement (AP) and Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) examinations in the senior years for benchmarks for admission into foreign universities. The school offers an accelerated mathematics and science curriculum based on a modular system, also offering languages, humanities, arts, and other elective subjects integrated into its modular system. Students are admitted based on several factors, performance in an application form, interviews, tests, and an admission camp. 25 places out of the 170 places offered in 2007 are also reserved for Primary 6 students wishing to apply with their PSLE results.

School of Science and Technology, Singapore[edit]

The School of Science and Technology (SST) is located at Technology Drive, which is about seven minutes walk from Dover MRT Station. There is also a bus stop outside the school campus.[8]


External links[edit]