“The world loves you”: Singaporeans are sending a message that students are more than just test scores

You will be more than a three-digit number.
You will be more than a three-digit number.
Image: EPA/Luis Enrique Ascui
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Every year in Singapore, tens of thousands of 12-year-olds must take a high-stakes, high-pressure test called the Primary School Leaving Examination. The results largely determine where a child goes on to secondary school. In the minds of many, the three-digit score—less than 200 is deemed disastrous and selective schools require much higher scores—determines a child’s broad life outcomes.

Syed Khairudin Aljunied, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, set out to change that mindset last week. 

“My PSLE score is 221. I am now an Associate Professor in a University,” he wrote in a Facebook post that was then shared more than 3,700 times. He urged friends and family to share their scores and their life outcomes, to make clear the test isn’t the final arbiter of success. “It will give hope and motivation to the young ones that PSLE scores don’t necessarily determine your future,” he said in the post. 

More than 1,000 people followed his lead, the Straits Times reported. Singer Benjamin Kheng reported that he was the “worst kid in the worst class” in school, but went on to become a member of a successful rock band.

“To every kid fearful of the road to school or back home, finding it hard to breathe, because of 3 stupid digits—the world loves you,” he said in this post, according to the BBC. “You are deeply loved, and you are more than this.”

Singapore is a country known for the academic achievement of its students. When the OECD tested kids in 76 countries on their math ability, Singapore came first. It ranks at the top of the OECD’s famous PISA test, administered to 15-year-olds around the world every few years. Other countries including the US, UK and Israel now even teach “Singapore math.”

But those sparkling results come at some cost. Pressure for children to do well on the PSLE exam is notorious: in October, an 11-year-old boy jumped to his death, apparently in large part due to exam stress and parental pressure. 

The ministry of education has responded by looking for ways to ratchet down the mania surrounding the test. In 2012, it banned the bizarre tradition of releasing the names and results of top scorers on the exam to the public. This corny-yet-moving video released by the education ministry earlier this year tries to highlight the importance of effort over achievement. 

And during the summer, the ministry said it would change how it grades the primary school leaving exam, moving from a points-based system to a “band system” which groups students into different levels of achievement (the change takes effect in 2021). The goal is to discourage parents and students from working too hard to edge up their scores by a few ticks.

Helping to drive this change is research that shows high-stakes test are very stressful, while not always producing deep learning. “These are tiny steps, but they are taking them,” Manu Kapur, a professor of psychological studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, and former head of curriculum, teaching, and learning at the National Institute of Education of Singapore told Quartz.

Khairudin’s campaign came after Singapore’s kids produced their best scores ever: 98.4% of students who took the exam will go on to secondary school (between 1980 and 2014, the percentage of students who passed has ranged from 81.7% to the latest new high). 

Though the posts address supportive messages to children, researchers have shown that much of the problem actually starts with exam-obsessed parents, who then stress their kids out. It remains to be seen whether a Facebook movement can change that.