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Concerns over fewer tangible measures in DSA exercise

No school sports competitions or Olympiads to showcase how good a student is. And no face-to-face trials or performances in front of assessors for this year’s Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise.

These have raised concerns whether the exercise will be fair.

In the light of the Covid-19 situation, selection for the scheme this year will be done through electronic means such as e-interviews.

Students could also be asked to perform tasks on video.

A total of 146 secondary schools and 20 junior colleges are taking part in this year’s exercise, which started on May 12.

The scheme grants entry into schools based on talents other than academic grades, before students take their Primary School Leaving Examination or the O levels.

Some preparatory centres have already begun to gear students up for the interviews, such as with communication and improvisation skills. These cost as much as $150 an hour for private sessions.

Ms Claudia Yu, founder of Gifted and Talented Education Centre, which does DSA preparation, said parents of Primary 5 pupils are also worried. She said: “Primary 5 is the prime year they build credentials, so with all the events cancelled, the children may have zero portfolio to present next year.”

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said that teachers and school leaders are experienced in conducting DSA selection.

Schools will select students with potential, “exemplary character and desirable personal qualities, such as the ability to thrive amidst adversity”, even without competition placements, said a spokesman.

While taking the changes in their stride, some parents wonder how “fair” the evaluation will be, if schools exercise more discretion in the process, especially for sports categories.

Mrs Yvonne Chan, 37, whose Primary 6 daughter is applying for DSA through badminton, said: “Without the physical trial, will the weight of the assessment be on something else like the interview?

“In the past, some schools would give applicants group tasks in face-to-face settings and observe how they collaborate and solve problems, but it would be quite hard to gauge all this in an online interview.”

The Ministry of Education said that teachers and school leaders are experienced in conducting DSA selection. Schools will select students with potential, “exemplary character and desirable personal qualities, such as the ability to thrive amidst adversity”, even without competition placements, said a spokesman.

Mrs Chan, an educator, believes that top schools will still likely focus on applicants’ past results or achievements as a first cut to sieve out the best candidates.

Mr Daniel Kwa, 46, whose Primary 6 son is a shot put athlete and is applying for DSA through track and field, said: “Without physical trials, I hope it doesn’t become a more aggressive competition on paper. If presentation becomes more important than the actual skill itself, this could advantage kids whose parents have time to put together documents, their achievements and portfolios.”

Mr Kwa, who works in logistics sales, added: “Good attitude and soft skills are important, but I’m not sure how these can be assessed as it becomes very subjective.”

Athletics coach Shawn Wee said: “E-auditions might make sense for performing arts, but I’m not sure about sports and how effective online interviews will be without a physical component.”

He also feels that relying heavily on past sports achievement may not be fair to late bloomers.

But some, like football coach Tohari Paijan, said this year’s changes are a “small hiccup” in schools’ talent-scouting process for sports.

“Players with talent are already recognised by other school teachers and coaches earlier, at around Primary 4,” he said.

Teachers can get feedback from coaches, he added.

“Coaches know which players have good attitude – those who come for training on time, have leadership skills, those who never give up, lose or win.”

Madam Maryann Koh, 47, whose Primary 6 son is applying through rock climbing, said his past records should put him in good standing.

From Zoom to interviews: MOE guidelines on DSA exercise

Schools participating in the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise this year will do all interviews and selection for shortlisted DSA candidates via electronic modes (e-modes). The Ministry of Education has issued a set of guidelines to all DSA schools on conducting the selection, to ensure the safety of students and staff, as well as fairness and transparency.

To ensure fairness in the selection process, the e-modes will be conducted at the applicants’ primary or secondary schools for standardisation of the setting and equipment available. School staff will also be present to provide technical support where necessary, and there will be no assistance from others.

Students will use tools such as Zoom, which they are familiar with through home-based learning. This will ensure a level playing field for students, as there is no need to use sophisticated tools and resources.

With the suspension of the National School Games, Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation, co-curricular activities (CCA) and selection trials, schools will look out for the student’s demonstrated diligence and dedication to the respective talent areas and his or her attitudes, even without placement in a national competition.

Each school has its own criteria and assessment, but all schools look at a range of skills and attributes when shortlisting students. These are all existing DSA selection practices that schools will continue to utilise.

Schools will continue to reach out to students from less advantaged backgrounds, including those with little or no prior training or formal certification, to ensure that they are aware of the support available, and encourage those with talent and potential to apply for suitable DSA schools whose programmes match their strengths and learning needs.

To ensure students are not unduly penalised due to the Covid-19 situation, adjustments will be made to the recognition of students’ CCA involvement. Their CCA attainment, which can be used as bonus point(s) for admission to junior college/polytechnic/Institute of Technical Education, is not expected to be adversely affected. Schools will be informed of these adjustments this coming week.

“We’re not so worried because he’s in the national youth climbing team, and coaches can also give an insight into his physical traits,” said Madam Koh, who runs a family photography studio.

A total of 3,500 students successfully applied to secondary schools through the scheme last year, up from 2,500 in 2017.

The MOE has refined and simplified the selection process since last year to help schools identify potential in students, and place less emphasis on participation in competitions or winning awards.

Observers say that this year’s situation may push students to pay more attention to how they present themselves in the interviews or on paper, unless schools can be even more creative in evaluation.

Associate Professor Jason Tan, from the National Institute of Education, said: “You need to assemble your personal information, a portfolio in some cases, plan your skill demonstration in other cases, prepare for the interview, and know how to highlight your strengths.

“If unaided, these things don’t always come easily to all students.”

Even with teachers’ recommendations and good track records, students will need to make their mark through the interviews, he added.

“Most applications would come with similar statements of affirmation from their teachers, so what makes a crucial difference is the interview, and seeing if what you say and how you behave is consistent with what’s on paper,” he said.

Prof Tan said that this year’s DSA will be a chance for schools to rethink what sort of talent they are looking for, with fewer tangible measures to go by.

“This re-evaluation of what it means to be a good sportsman, musician, leader, should continue beyond this year. It should not be a one-off exercise,” he added.

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