US vs Singapore Public Schools—Grading


One of the things I struggle with as a foreign parent is understanding the grading system in Singapore.

On one hand, I find the grading system incredibly forgiving. Everything over a 85 is an A? 70-85 is a B? 50-70 is a C? It’s only an F if it’s below a 50?

Then I remember that in the US a grade is comprised of work done over 10 weeks, and things like participation and effort can affect the grade. No single assessment controls your grade until college.

In second grade, Elanor will take an exam in October that will count for 50 points out of 100 for the year. I can’t imagine stress like that at the age of seven.


Elanor was participating in an after-school math activity where she was regularly coming home with low grades. Despite this, she said she was in the “high” group. Why was she still there if she was coming home with such low grades?

We pulled her from the group before vacation. Over vacation, though, she expressed to us that she really wanted to stay.

I reached out them and asked them to explain to me how they decided what group she should be in, and what the criteria was. By the time she finished explaining, I had context for what we though were bad grades.

Parenting a third culture kid isn’t easy, and neither is being the foreign parent in a strange school system. Learn from my lesson and ask for someone to explain things to you before you (0ver)react.

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14 Responses to US vs Singapore Public Schools—Grading

  1. M says:

    Nice to have you back. 🙂

  2. karmeleon says:

    Math Olympiad Training? That’s high level. Grades are not everything – the percentile is. But not every school publishes that.

    • Grades aren’t everything, but they’re a hell of a lot. And the P2 grades impact which stream she’ll be in and whether she’s invited to take the higher Chinese class.

      We send her to the math program to help with her grade. We feel she’s not doing as well as she could, so any extra support she can get is worthwhile.

      Unfortunately I’m not sure that E will ever want to follow in Ravi’s footsteps and do Math Olympiad.

  3. C says:

    I experienced both the US and Singapore school system – maybe it was because I went to a Singapore school initially, but I actually found the American system more stressful. The constant assessment made me feel like I had to constantly be on my toes, since so many little things counted and were adding up to my final grade. The SG system gave me the chance to make mistakes in my learning without feeling like it would count towards my final grade. And I appreciated that stress was managed through 2 main exams per year, rather than occurring throughout the year. I think it all depends on the student’s learning style and personality, though. Different systems benefit different types of learners.

    • Coming from the US, my thought is that if you have a bad day on that one test day in Singapore, you’re fucked. It affects which stream you’re in the following year, which can have a lasting impact on your future. Which is way too much pressure to put on a twelve year old. Parents take the PSLE year off! That’s terrifying. If you want to do well, you need tuition. Which disenfranchises students who don’t speak English at home and who can’t afford tuition. This tends to reinforce cultural stereotypes about how students perform according to race, and contributes to the rampant racism and Chinese/White supremacy in Singapore.

      In the US, if you have a bad day, it’s a bad day. The other assessments will balance it out. 10% of your grade (more in the younger grades) is based on effort and participation. All the spelling tests over the 10 weeks will only be 10% of your grade (if that, so if you bomb one spelling test it literally has no effect on your grade for the quarter).

      US has smaller classes so the teachers know their students much better. In the elementary grades, it’s one teacher for all the subjects–I knew my twenty-five primary students inside out. Reshuffling at the end of the year has nothing to do with ability. There’s no streaming until the upper grades. Even in high school, you never have a single test count for so much of your grade. Even if it were to count for 25% of your grade, it would be for that quarter, not for the year, which significantly lowers it’s impact.

      I think the anxiety you felt in the US was most likely due to the fact that Singapore brainwashes kids to think that each assessment is the end of the world and could ruin their lives. So of course, the American Model would practically send you into a daily panic attack.

      None of this is to say that the US system is perfect. It’s not. But I do think the grading system is better.

      I do think different models work for different kids. Singapore publish is like the Boston exam schools–super rigorous, and sink or swim. Some kids do very well in that environment.

      But I’ll tell you one population that Singapore schools are a nightmare for–children with functioning disabilities. Rhiannon has sensory processing disorder. She needs a few accommodations in a mainstream classroom. She’s smart and can handle the work, assuming those are in place. She doesn’t belong at the special ed schools (which are so problematic on their own–disabled kids don’t deserve to be hidden away like dirty laundry, which is how they’re seen). But because Singapore has no equivalent to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public schools to accommodate the needs of special needs children or face a massive lawsuit) she will not be given any accommodations. Because of that, I expect her to overload and become disregulated and then have some sort of meltdown. She’ll be labeled a troublemaker and/or stupid. But it’s not just her. It’s high fuctioning kids on the autism spectrum. It’s kids with anxiety disorders. It’s kids with add/adhd. Singapore is a nightmare for this population and they are ignored and have zero legal protection. I can’t force a school to accommodate Rhi.

      With Rhiannon, we’ll be forced to pay US college tuition prices for first grade or move back to the US. Which is a bit of a Sophie’s choice.

      • karmeleon says:

        Special needs schools in SG have had autistic (and others) kids who were national high scorers. These kids were disruptive in school, but accommodated in the special needs schools bc it’s a special needs school with trained teachers. Anyway, these are cases I’ve read about over the years. I think our mainstream school class sizes might be a little large for teachers to accommodate too? Like my son’s class in p1 and now p2, has an autistic boy. Eventually they had a Shadow Teacher just for him in the class – that was for last year. This year, no more. He’s still challenging but more manageable.

      • You’re missing the point.

        1–Special needs kids shouldn’t be in different schools at all as it further segregates them from society and reinforces the idea that having special needs is shameful. Which is a massive issue in Singapore.

        2–I’m talking about children like Rhi who need some small accommodations but are otherwise fine. There is no legal protection to require a school to provide them. Some may. Plenty don’t. There’s no rules in place to require anything. From talking to SG parents, most feel that Rhiannon would best be managed with regular canings, rather than therapy. Plenty of people don’t believe in sensory delays at all in general in Singapore.

      • karmeleon says:

        I understand what you are saying, but you see the situation here too, right? Mainstream is so “set” in their ways…. I think it’d be tough. The teacher in my son’s class broke down in the 1st term last year (p1) with his classmate’s actions. IN the end only got manageable with the shadow teacher (which the parents have to pay for). But this is a high -functioning special needs child. So through last year, he was guided to slowly adapt. He still has some difficulties, but much much better coping with the classroom situation this year, hence no shadow teacher anymore.

      • I see that the situation here is wrong.

        Classes shouldn’t be this big. 30 kids is too many. 40 starting in p3 is too many. If you have a sped child, if anything, your class should be even smaller than the norm.

        Children shouldn’t be hidden away as if they’re shameful because they’re special needs.

        There should be a law protecting not just children but all persons with special needs in Singapore.

        It’s wrong that the parents had to pay for the sped aide (shadow teacher–what an odd term. Sounds like something out of a gothic horror novel). School should be required to pay for whatever is necessary for the child to be part of the school. Because of the ADA, in the us, the school would provide Rhi’s occupational therapy, and give her therapy/behavioral support. As a teacher, I’ve had children in my classes with aides. The school pays their salary. Children should have the right to a quality education equal to those of their neurotypical and physically able peers.

        When we go back to the states and someone inevitably brings up Singapore as a model to follow, I will have many unkind things to say at that school board meeting.

  4. karmeleon says:

    I don’t see how kids – special needs or otherwise can be managed by caning. :p

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