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Exams at an Early Age: How an Expat Kid Navigates Local Primary School

LearnPost Category - LearnLearnFamily LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life

Singapore has yet again topped the world’s charts with its test-taking abilities, but at what cost? One mama contemplates the stressful burden bore by her 8-year-old in local primary school

Disclaimer—My family’s experience is an individual one, and should not be taken as representative of the entire system.

Last year I predicted that Primary 2 would be easier than Primary 1 because the system would feel less alien. That statement hasn’t exactly proved true. Yes, we had an idea of what the day-to-day experience would be like in primary school. Our family got used to the uniforms, the British spelling, and the teachers that stayed with us for the second year. All of that was familiar and the first three terms passed much as they had the year before, with spelling lists, ting xie (writing Chinese characters), and Mandarin tuition.

However, we were in no way prepared for the emotional stress of the “SA2” (semestral assessment two) exams in Term 4, particularly the three back-to-back days in October. Those exams count for fifty percent of the year’s grade (a grading system U.S. schools don’t use until university). As we progressed from Term 3 into Term 4, I began to see cracks form in Elanor’s quiet, contained exterior. There were tears for no reason, tantrums, and an overall tenseness in her small body.

The week before Elanor was to take her SA2 exams, a news report came out that an eleven-year-old boy had plunged to his death the day before he was to show his parents a failing report card. We’d heard of college students in the U.S. committing suicide over grades, but this was the first instance we’d heard of a child doing so. My husband and I decided to tell Elanor about the incident because we were worried she’d hear about it at school. We emphasized that no grade was ever worth her life, and to promise to talk to us if she felt depressed — whether over grades or anything else.

I have one exception from my growing inner kiasu voice—essays. In Singapore there is always a “model answer” as the gold standard and any deviation from it will result in fewer points. As an experienced teacher and an author I feel, strongly, that children need to develop their own voices and improve when compared to themselves, rather than a “model answer.” So I told Elanor I’d rather see her authentic voice and have her lose points than produce a model answer that didn’t show her own creativity.

But what one says as a parent and the way one acts are not always consistent. Even as I tried to resist the kiasu mindset, I found myself compulsively wandering the test prep aisles at Popular at various points throughout the year. After Elanor told me one SA2 test result, I had trouble refraining from asking, daily, if she’d seen any other test results. I’m ashamed to admit that—my husband didn’t feel the need to interrogate her, and I envy his restraint.

As the year drew to a close, I found that my anxiety matched Elanor’s. Which of the three tiers of homerooms would she be in next year? I know from my own time as a teacher that once a child is put in a low stream, it’s not common for them to move up. I’m further stressed because I’ve been told that there is a “huge leap” in expectations from P2 to P3, and my response has been are you kidding me?

Today published an article about the founder of’s child getting his PSLE score. While the government doesn’t publish PSLE scores, Mdm Soon shared her son’s scores, which were lower than she expected, despite all A’s. I was particularly taken by the fact that he was shamed for not getting a high enough PSLE score, despite getting straight A’s. Some commenters questioned how this child’s results were news, while others argued that the legitimacy of the website was somehow innately tied to his score.

If Primary 1 and 2 felt like two back-to-back marathons, what will Primary 3 be like? Exhausted and fearful, I find myself weighing the notion of homeschool, but admit that while Elanor and I have a strong mother/daughter bond, we end up fighting every time I try to tutor her myself. I’ve thought about private school, but know it’s out of our reach financially.

I find myself looking for the positives. As my friends tell me—they all managed to survive Singapore’s public schools, and Elanor will, too. I’ve met plenty of Elanor’s friends and their parents and they are positive influences on her life. Despite the bruising exams, the teachers have encouraged and supported Elanor. I’m so proud of her improvement in Chinese and Math.

Come January 3rd, we’ll be ready for Primary 3.

Lead image sourced via Two Weeks in Singapore. Image #1 sourced via Today. Image #2 sourced via Straits Times.

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