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


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.

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