Many parents heaved a sigh of relief and celebrated when the Malaysian government last week announced the scrapping of the Primary 6 examination for 12-year-olds from this year.
Known by its Malay abbreviation UPSR (Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah), the examination had been Malaysia's equivalent of the Primary School Leaving Examination in Singapore.
"When I found out that UPSR had been cancelled, I remembered how to breathe again," housewife Anna Marie Tan, 42, whose daughter was to take the examination this year, told The Straits Times.
While primary school leavers will automatically enter secondary school, the UPSR results can determine their entry into top schools and boarding schools, sometimes stressing out students who have little time to eat, sleep, rest or play in their pursuit of straight As.
Zara Sofea, 17, who sat the examination five years ago and gained straight As, said: "Some can thrive under the stress, but most cannot. They will likely attend a lot of hours of tuition just to make it and lose time meant for growing up."
Mr Harry Tan Huat Hock, secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, told ST: "The public exam places undue stress on the young... the emphasis should be on wholesome education - physical, emotional, social - besides academic excellence."
Pupils' achievements can be monitored through coursework, quizzes, monthly tests, mid-year and year-end exams, he added.
Education Minister Radzi Jidin, who announced the decision on April 28, said it was made after consulting some 2,000 teachers, parents and students.
There were instances where teachers had to "steal" time from other subjects that were not part of the UPSR to prepare for the examination, while some children attended tuition classes into the night, leaving them with no time to play, he said.
Datuk Radzi added that Year 6 pupils will be evaluated using school-based assessments and that the Education Ministry has also studied the examination systems in places like Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Scotland, but did not provide more details.
National Parent-Teacher Association president Mohd Ali Hassan told ST: "School-based assessments would take into account physical activities, co-curriculum, sports, psychometric fields and high-order thinking skills, which are aimed at creating students who are more holistic and not just academic."
Such assessments have been around for some years alongside the UPSR written exam but had not been a main focus in schools.
Dr Mohd Ali said he was surprised that the announcement was made four months into the school year without giving further details.
He added: "Has there been a pilot study on the type of assessment to be used in future, are teachers ready, and is there enough online material for school-based assessments?"
The decision to scrap the exam was made easier after the Covid-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the UPSR last year.
Schools were closed under a partial shutdown, or the movement control order (MCO), for much of last year, impacting learning for many students.
Madam Tan said: "Based on how my daughter fared in the last school exams, the MCO was not kind to her and her classmates' studies. It would be to their disadvantage to assess them using the UPSR."
In the absence of the UPSR last year, those who wished to apply to boarding schools, which often have a minimum grade requirement, had to undergo the Specific Schools Admission Assessment.
But only a quarter of Primary 6 students sat the examination.
"Hence, we see that if given the choice, not all students want to sit special examinations to go to boarding schools," said Dr Radzi.