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Commentary: PSLE and other high-stakes exams – how to embrace the anxiety

Worries over whether a child will be at his optimum best during the PSLE have become even more pronounced because of COVID-19, says this writer.

Commentary: PSLE and other high-stakes exams – how to embrace the anxiety

Students at Northoaks Primary School collect their PSLE results, Nov 25, 2020. (Photo: Facebook/Lee Hsien Loong)

SINGAPORE: On Thursday morning (Sep 30) at 8:15am, close to 40,000 students will begin their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) written exams.

This year, the anxiety which grips many families in ordinary times has been turbo-charged no thanks to a COVID-19 surge in Singapore.

To give parents and students greater peace of mind, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced on Saturday (Sep 18) that Primary 6 students will go on a study break prior to the PSLE.

This would “minimise the risk of school-based transmissions and reduce the number of students placed on Quarantine Order (QO) or Leave of Absence (LOA) prior to the examination”.

MOE and Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) also announced on Sunday (Sep 26) updated testing arrangements for students taking PSLE and other year-end national exams, providing parents with clarity about various scenarios.

Despite everyone’s best effort, no amount of planning can account for something unpredictable happening on exam day.

The anxiety is driven by an awful worry that years of preparation will be sacrificed because of an untimely disruption and when a child isn’t at their optimal best to perform when the big day rolls around.

Unlike the more direct fear of not doing well, this deeper anxiety is not usually discussed and yet it is more relevant than ever amid a COVID-19 surge.

How can parents and students better make sense of and alleviate this anxiety? Somewhat ironically, it begins with understanding a concept from PSLE Science.


When I was in primary school, one of my favourite questions in science had to do with experiment processes.

These questions were both interesting and easy to answer, and often concerned the idea of a “fair test” – where the differences in a variable being measured in an experiment are caused only by changing an independent variable with every other variable controlled for.

Making a connection between the tests from science experiments and the exams I sat for, it was clear that “fair” tests were challenging, if not impossible, to implement in real-life exams.

Of course, MOE has always gone to great lengths to ensure that national exams are as fair as possible, from a rigorous enforcement of rules to prevent cheating to recent reductions in the scope of exams and issues of assessment validity, reliability and fairness are key parts of the SEAB’s work.

Using the language of PSLE Science, all these efforts ideally aim to ensure that differences in the measured variable – how a student scores – are attributed only to differences in the independent variable – students’ ability.

But in science, a fair test also means all other variables affecting a student’s performance can be controlled for. But we know this is impossible.

For instance, a student may have caught the flu from a random interaction. Pre-COVID-19, this would have affected his focus during the exam; amid current measures, he would not be able to sit for it if he has not recovered.

Or a bout of nerves may interrupt a student’s sleep the night before, affecting his concentration. Perhaps a train disruption may cause a student to be late, increasing his anxiety level.

Of course, where warranted, special consideration will be granted to a student post-exam with other factors taken into account in fairly awarding a grade. This is a good SEAB policy, but it is an option few would prefer over being able to demonstrate the best of their ability during the actual exam itself.

And therein lies this reservoir of hidden anxiety about what may happen to prevent students from performing at their best.

Listen to three working adults reveal how their PSLE results have shaped their life journeys in a no-holds barred conversation on our Heart of the Matter podcast:


I’ve had my fair share of such exams and so have two suggestions on how parents and students can alleviate this anxiety.

First is to recognise that these big tests are not some abnormal feature of early life in Singapore, but an inherent part of life itself.

For all my interest in science, I ended up scoring a “B” for my PSLE and missing the cut-off point for my desired secondary school. I had expected to score an “A” (as I did in school).

Unfortunately, I stumbled over some of the more challenging questions and did not manage my time well. Somehow, all the pre-exam conditioning seemed to have gone out the window right when I needed it most.

I remember lamenting about how one hour and forty-five minutes could have such lasting consequences on the next four years of my life. I could not wait to enter the adult world where – in my mind – because exams no longer existed, such high stakes no longer existed.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Competitions, interviews, presentations, even first dates – all of them are “exams” and even the tiniest of details could have lasting consequences on one’s life. The PSLE isn’t just one huge exam where the rest of your life is decided. In fact, it’s just the beginning – with many more of these tests that will come our way and very few of them are completely “fair”.

Embracing this mentality can alleviate the pressure of any high-stakes event and help us deal with uncertainty better.

In a way, how we live with COVID-19 is a lesson in how to live with exam risk – we take necessary precautions and then do what we can.

Which leads to the second point of focusing on what we can control.

On a recent Channel 8 talk show (Frontline Connects 2), I was asked if I would tell the next generation that hard work is sufficient for success.

I said I would tell them that one should work hard, but there will still be things which are beyond their control and that as long as they try their best and are satisfied with their efforts, that is as good as it gets.

Especially in a time like this when so many things are out of our control, accepting that we have done our best has to be what really matters.  

Of course, there are deeper conversations we still need to have about how society could better mitigate adverse outcomes of such key exams and ensure that no individual is held back in life by past academic setbacks.

For now though, there are exams to be taken and milestones to be crossed. To all students taking the exams, you’ve come this far but there are many more miles to go, and I wish you all the very best.

Ng Chia Wee will begin his final year of undergraduate education at the National University of Singapore’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Programme next January, and is currently interning at a private education company. He is also part of the social mobility non-profit organisation Access.

Source: CNA/cr