Primary School Leaving Examination

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The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is a national examination taken by all students in Singapore near the end of their sixth year in primary school, which is also their last year in primary school before they leave for secondary school. It is administered by the Ministry of Education. This nationwide examination tests the English language, the Mother Tongue languages (typically Chinese, Malay or Tamil, and also some other South Asian languages, such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu), Mathematics and Science. Each subject paper is around 2 hours long, with this time varying by fifteen minutes, except for certain components of language subjects. Multiple choice questions are tested using a standardised optical answer sheet (OAS) that uses optical mark recognition to detect answers.

The format of the PSLE and the presence of it in the Singapore education system gives the PSLE a part in national culture. PSLE material has also been exported to other countries. Also, some schools abroad have their students take the international version of the exam called the International Primary School Leaving Examination or iPSLE taken sometime in August to help them benchmark themselves vis-a-vis the performance of other foreign schools.

Examination subjects and procedure

The format of the examinations within the PSLE has been revised consistently throughout its history, in order to suit the Ministry of Education's policy. However, the standard examination procedure retains 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.

Language examination and qualification

In order 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 stream (standard). 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 4, his/her fourth year in primary school. There was also an EM3 stream (foundational), 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 4 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 4, the students' parents decide their combination of subjects. At the end of Primary 5, 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 an oral examination, testing the students' proficiency in speaking the language, a listening comprehension(LC) examination, testing the students' ability to comprehend speech in daily situations, an examination to test the student's composition skills and the student's proficiency in writing in various scenarios, and finally an examination testing the student's written use of the language (e.g. grammar, punctuation, vocabulary).

English language

The oral examination for the English language usually lasts about five to 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 aloud from a passage fluently, this being graded on a score of 10. The students are then required to describe and interpret a picture as thoroughly and detailed as possible in a clockwise or anti-clockwise way, and giving comments about their actions in a formal way and predict the consequence of such an action, and this also having a score of 10. It is advised that students do not point to the picture. No names should be given and everything is to be said in present tense. The final section requires the students to answer any questions the teachers asks of them related to the two sections, which often require their opinion and inference, and provides the final ten marks. The examination is judged by two teachers who have to agree on a single score for each student.

A listening comprehension examination will then 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; this particular examination lasts around twenty minutes, with the maximum score being 20.

There is a two-section composition question comprising of functional writing, also known as situational writing, where students write an informal or a formal letter, memo, note or even possibly a short report, and an essay, usually written in the form of a narrative or third person drama. These two sections last a total of one hour and ten minutes. The functional section has a score value of 15; the maximum essay score 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 in order 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 asked often in the General Certificate of Education (O levels). The examination paper asks the students to choose from two questions. The first question takes the form of a picture, representing a scene in which the students are supposed to write about and describe, and the second takes the form of a given situation or scenario, each including writing criteria, such as the required setting of each of the two questions in which the students are supposed to fulfil.

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, and tests 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 2005 has a weight of 15. 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. Students then are provided five questions, with a total weight of 10, where the student is to synthesise (join) two sentences together into one complete, grammatically coherent and agreeable sentence. Following this ten sentences with highlighted spelling and grammar mistakes which are supposed to be copyedited, with a total weight of 10. A close passage with a total of ten items and a weight of 10 is provided to the student; the passage tests grammar specifically.

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 may be given a graphical stimulus; students will answer multiple-choice questions based on the graphical stimulus. Students are then given a passage to comprehend, and are tested first by answering five multiple choice questions about it, with a total weight of 5, and answering in full sentences 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 standard format for 2005; it varies slightly in weight for each section, with deletions of some sections if the student is taking Foundation English as part of the EM3 stream.

Science examination and qualification

A science paper lasts for around 1 hour and 45 minutes. Students are given 30 multiple choice questions with a weight of two marks of each, thus a total weight of 60; 14 open-ended questions, with weights of 2,3 or 4 marks each measure proficiency in several units of the curriculum, with a total weight of 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:


  • energy, its forms such as heat, basic thermodynamics in a system and the conservation of energy
  • force
  • Biogeochemical cycles: water cycle, atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere
  • matter and fundamentals of material science, mass and physical properties, discrete particles, phases of matter, effects of heat on matter
  • Electromagnetism and its components electricity and magnetism


  • Human anatomy: sense, respiratory system, muscular system, skeletal system and digestive system
  • Scientific classification of life
  • Plants and their parts, methods of defence and photosynthesis, transport in plants, active transport
  • Animal gestation and plant germination, growth, and life cycles
  • Sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction, flowers, dispersal of fruit, classifying recognising plants' methods of reproduction and dispersal
  • Biological production and population growth: recognising reasons for an exponential and logistic function in a graph
  • Cellular biology


  • Chemical testing for presence of various substances: calcium hydroxide solution (lime water) to test for carbon dioxide, iodine solution to test for starch, inference about interconnected interactions and processes to yield products
  • Testing for results of biological processes
  • Pollution and steps to prevent and combat pollution


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 two hours and fifteen minutes long, and is divided into three bookets,paper 1 "booklet A", "booklet B" and "paper 2". 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 twenty 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 in order 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 in order 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 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

Although the students have an absolute score, each student's absolute score are compared with other students in order 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. Typically aggregate scores range from 0 to 300. In 2007 and 2010 coincidentally, for example, the highest ever aggregate score for the PSLE was 294 and the lowest aggregate score was 43.

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. The multiple choice questions are graded by machines in the Ministry of Education, which reads the OAS sheets.

Pupils who fail the PSLE would be retained in primary school to retake the PSLE in the EM3 stream the following year.

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 that 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

The 2008/2009 PSLE Papers

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 to "filter" the average and below average students, as claimed by the Ministry of Education, as only those who are truly the best can get aggregate scores above 250. In 2009, such things happened again, with plenty of students unable to finish the maths paper. An Maths Olympiad winner taking PSLE described the paper to be of "Olympiad standard". The entry scores for schools in 2009 dropped drastically. E.g.: HCI (Hwa Chong Institution) dropped 2 marks in entry score, from 259 to 257.


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:

<math>T = 50 + 10 {x- \mu \over \sigma}</math>


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.

Controversy on flaws in papers

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 Assessments Board acknowledged the mistake a few days after the exam, annulling the question and awarding 2 marks to every student for the question.

Other methods of admission to secondary schools

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

Direct School Admission

Independent schools and Autonomous schools can admit up to 20% and 10% of their students via the Direct School Admission scheme (abb. 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 can take in as many students as they want via DSA. Other schools have also been granted permission by the Ministry to take in students specialising in the schools' niche areas up to a maximum of 5% of their total student intake.

International schools

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'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. Another school was granted the permission to set up a school similar to the original two in 2006, the school is SJI International which offers a similar programme to ACS (International).

Singapore Sports School

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, football/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 sportsmen. Some of the students were finally accepted on an appeal basis after that. Students in the school aim for the International Baccalaureate (IB) paper as it is less strenuous in comparison to the A Levels, allowing the students to focus on their sports, the Singapore Arts School follows similarly.

NUS High School

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 and Scholastic Assessment Test 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

The School of Science and Technology, Singapore (SST) opened its doors to its first batch of students at its holding site in 2009. The first batch of students will start their lessons in 2010 at the holding site, and at 2012, the school was shifted to the permanent site along Commonwealth Ave West.