KUALA LUMPUR - Many Malaysian parents heaved a sigh of relief and celebrated when the government last week announced the scrapping of the Primary 6 examination for 12-year-old school leavers from this year.
Known by its Malay abbreviation UPSR, the examination was Malaysia's equivalent of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in Singapore.
"When I found out that UPSR had been cancelled, I remembered how to breathe again," homemaker 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.
Madam Helena Hashim, 43, whose eldest child sat the UPSR several years ago, said she "spent most of my life in the car", ferrying her child to tuition and waiting for classes to end.
"My child didn't even have time to eat a proper lunch on some days because the school would have extra classes after school."
Zara Sofea, 17, who sat the examination five years ago and gained straight As, said: "Twelve-year-olds are too young to have standardised tests determine their opportunities later on, and they will be thrown into competition too early.
"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."
National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Harry Tan Huat Hock told ST: "The public exam places undue stress for the young at such a tender age whereas the emphasis should be on wholesome education - physical, emotional, social besides academic excellence."
Students' achievements can be monitored through coursework, quizzes, monthly tests, mid-year and year-end exams, he added.
Education Minister Radzi Jidin announced the decision on April 28, saying 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 went for tuition classes until night-time, leaving them with no time to play, he said.
He said 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.
"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," National Parent-Teacher Association president Associate Professor Dr Mohd Ali Hassan told ST.
Such assessments had been implemented for some years alongside the UPSR written exam but had not been a main focus in schools.
Dr Mohd Ali added: "What is surprising, however, is why did they wait until four months had passed in the school year to announce this, and why haven't they announced further details?
"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 2020, impacting learning for many students.
"Based on how my daughter fared in the last school exams, the MCO had not been kind to her and her classmates' studies. It would be to their disadvantage to assess them using the UPSR," said Madam Tan.
As the examination was a way of assessing which students would enter boarding schools that often have a minimum grade requirement, those who wished to apply for such schools last year 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 for special examinations to go to boarding schools," said Dr Radzi.