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The extraordinary emphasis placed by students and parents on higher or tertiary education is one of the pre-eminent characteristics of education in the SEAMEO region. While this emphasis on higher education has been a driving force in the development of SEAMEO Member Countries, this obsession with higher education has created both educational and social problems.

Higher competition for college admission has led some secondary schools in the region to ignore formal standards of curriculum and concentrate principally on curriculum that prepares students for college entrance examinations. Hence, some teachers in higher schools give weight to memory-centered instructions that encourage cramming and memorization. It seems that there is tendency for student assessment to be merely summative, used to support administrative decisions on promotion, streaming and selection of students for tertiary education and for competition in the job market.

In many countries, the public examinations at the end of the lower and secondary stages have been severely criticized. They are seen to have distorted the basic objectives of education since performance at the examination in the form of high grades or marks has become the major goals for students, teachers and schools. In some countries, students who fail to pass the public examination get demotivated for education and become unemployed or unemployable school leavers.

In like manner, parents and the community, in particular associate children's progress in school only with their success in cognitive learning. The importance of an all-round and balanced education of children has not been fully understood and accepted by society. Even in the cognitive assessment of students, there is too heavy a dependence on only one type of assessment, which is the written test.

In this context, the SEAMEO Secretariat attempted to prepare a report on the examination systems at the secondary level in member countries of the SEAMEO region, with the hope that this would serve as springboard for further discussion, research and development with the end in view of improving the quality of education in Southeast Asian Countries.

This report covers a brief on SEAMEO, the structure of the educational systems in the SEAMEO region, and the secondary school examination systems in SEAMEO Member Countries.


The Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) was established in November 1965 as a chartered international organization whose purpose is to promote cooperation in education, science and culture in the Southeast Asian region. The name was chosen to reflect the need for a regional grouping, the purpose of which is to share and maximize use of resources, with collective leadership to be provided by the Ministers of Education of the Member Countries.

SEAMEO is composed of ten (10) Member Countries, namely: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand Union of Myanmar and Viet Nam, and six (6) Associate Member Countries which include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands and New Zealand. The Organization has 11 established Regional Centres/Network of excellence, namely BIOTROP, INNOTECH, RECSAM, RELC, RIHED, SEARCA, SPAFA, TROPMED Network namely: TROPMED/ Indonesia, TROPMED/Malaysia, TROPMED/Philippines, TROPMED/Thailand, VOCTECH, SEAMEO Regional Training Centre, and SEAMEO Regional Open Learning Centre. These SEAMEO units serve as the empowered arm of the Organization through the diverse range of expertise they offer, such as, tropical biology, agriculture, tropical medicine, science and mathematics education, educational innovation and technology, language education, higher education development, archaeology and fine arts, vocational and technical education. Open learning and distance education.

SEAMEO is well positioned to pursue its vision of becoming visible and an excellent organization, contributing effectively to an improved quality of life of all the people in the region. Its mission is to promote cooperation among its Member and Associate Member Countries through its Regional Centres with their professional leadership role in training, research and development, information dissemination, and other relevant activities.

The goal of the Organization is to assist member countries in developing expertise and excellence in education, science and culture for the promotion of an enlightened and productive citizenry in their respective countries.

SEAMEO's strengths, such as the following, have been able to bring forth several achievements and impacts for the benefits of its Member Countries:

Firstly, its professional and technical programmes and activities which are intrinsically regional in character and often conducted on a regular scheduled basis are special and unique. These programmes and activities are planned, organized and implemented primarily on Southeast Asian orientation and intended for Southeast Asians.

Secondly, the Organization has built over the last 30 years a strong infrastructure of extensive physical and equipment resources. Almost every Centre has its own campus, training, research and information dissemination facilities to carry out its functions successfully and with quality. Moreover, the Organization has gained non-tangible resources, such as vast experiences and information as well as networks and linkages with well-established organizations and agencies, and reputation.

Thirdly, the Organization is non-profit and not politically oriented. Its activities are focused on universally appealing themes of human resource development, including sustainable development, people empowerment and gender and development. These facts help in making SEAMEO attractive to countries wishing to make contributions to sustainable development, particularly at the grassroots level in Southeast Asia.

Fourthly, the technical competence and experience of its personnel, complemented by the technical expertise provided by the Associate Member Countries and partner agencies, account for the quality and impact of its programmes and activities. The regional characteristic of the Centres' professional staff also contributes to the rich experience and competence of every Centre in undertaking projects.

And lastly, SEAMEO activities are not limited to Member Countries within the Southeast Asian region but are also opened to participants, programmes and activities from outside the region. Interactions in these activities further enrich the experiences of the participants, as well as the staff of the Centres.


The structure of the educational systems in the region is basically inherited from western colonial powers. Common characteristics are: (a) a three-tiered system (primary, secondary and tertiary education) with age-specific grading and the tiers linked to each other through a formal selection mechanism, often in the form of examination; (b) a pronounced streaming or tracking at the secondary level; and (c) a private school system in addition to the state system, normally is significantly more extensive at the higher levels than at the primary level.

1.  Duration and Age of Entry

For the purpose of this report, all formal education which is post primary and pre-tertiary is defined as being secondary education. In most countries in the region, secondary education is divided into stages, although the point of demarcation varies. In the Philippines, there is a single stage, and in three others, namely: Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore, secondary education is divided into three stages. The terms used to describe the various stages vary among the Member Countries, but for the purposes of this report the terms "lower" and "upper" have been used to describe two stages; "lower", "upper" and "higher secondary/pre university" to describe three stages, and secondary to describe a unitary system.

As shown in Table I, (To view the table requires Adobe Acrobat Reader) the duration of time spent in the primary sector ranges from four to eight years, with six being the most common. Myanmar has the shortest primary school system, with four year duration. This is followed by Lao PDR and Vietnam, with five years. Similarly, the age of entry to primary school ranges from five years of age to seven, with six being the most common. Brunei Darussalam has the youngest entry age of five years. At the lower/junior secondary stage, the most common duration is three years, and the most common age of entry is twelve years old. At the upper, higher or pre-university stage, the duration is split fairly between two and three years, and fifteen years is the most common age of entry.

Except in Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia and Indonesia at no stage of secondary education is attendance compulsory in other SEAMEO Member Countries. All SEAMEO Member Countries, except Malaysia and Singapore have compulsory elementary education. In most countries, secondary education is not compulsory but universal. Only three countries have any degree of compulsory attendance at the secondary level. Table 1 identifies the position of each country in this regard.

2.   Levels/Stages

For most SEAMEO Member Countries, secondary education is divided into distinct levels. There is a variety of historical and pedagogical reasons for this. Lower/Junior secondary schools, for example were once institutions in which most students completed their secondary education, while only a few proceeded to upper secondary. As circumstances have changed, and as the demand has grown, more students have proceeded to upper secondary schools.

During the lower/junior secondary stage, the emphasis of most countries remains on a broad general education which may or may not be designed to prepare students for more specialized study during the upper/senior secondary stage. In Thailand, a comprehensive or diversified curriculum that combined general education with work experiences was introduced at the lower secondary level.

3.   Classification of Schools

All the SEAMEO Member Countries have some forms of classification of their secondary schools, such as: general, academic, vocational, and in most cases, except in the Philippines, this classification takes effect only at the upper secondary stage. Whenever such classification exists, it is mainly into two types: general/academic and vocational. Apart from the aforementioned classification of schools, other three types of secondary schools in Indonesia include religious, service, and special secondary schools. In the Philippines, other types include science high schools, and school for the Arts.


The word "examination is taken to mean something in addition to normal classroom tests, and something which is normally administered at the end of the lower secondary and the upper secondary school and at the end of higher secondary or pre-university level. Other forms of examination are conducted at the school level and by school districts or school clusters. There are various procedures for school examinations in the SEAMEO Member Countries. For most countries examination is compulsory.

1.  Objectives

A number of the objectives of secondary school examinations are common to many of the countries in the SEAMEO region. They are to:

-  measure the effectiveness of the teaching/learning process;
-  measure students' present levels of achievement;
-  measure one’s students’ progress against others for future selection or promotion      purpose
-  provide information for streaming purposes;
-  evaluate the relevance of the curriculum; and
-  measure progress towards the accomplishment of national goals.

Data from student examination also provide useful feedback for other purposes. At the school level, such data serve as basis for vocational and career guidance of students. In some countries, student examination is used in streaming students into different courses of study to cater for differences in their academic abilities. At the national level, many countries use the data as a form of needs analysis for decisions on the types of in-service training programmes to be offered to teachers. In some SEAMEO countries, information gathered from student examination provides valuable input for policy decisions on educational reforms and renewal. Though not among the stated objectives, all SEAMEO Countries provide feedback to parents on their children’s performance in school and issue certificates which record their performance in public examinations.

2.  Types of Examination

Included in this section are public examinations, school-based examinations such as: summative examination and formative evaluation.

a.  Public examinations at the national/state/provincial level

Table 2 (To view the table requires Adobe Acrobat Reader ) compares the frequency and timing of public examinations in the various secondary systems of the Member Countries. Many names are given to the various grades and levels, such as form, junior/middle/ senior grade, lower and upper secondary grade, etc. For the purposes of this report, the term grade has been used for all countries. For example, in Indonesia the six years of secondary education are officially referred to as junior secondary grade one to three and senior secondary grade one to three. However, in this table, grades seven to 12 are used for Indonesia: Grade seven for the first year of secondary education indicates that in the educational system in Indonesia there are six years of primary education.

All Member Countries except Thailand and Lao PDR conduct some forms of public examinations at the secondary level. The public examination is held at the provincial/state level. Generally public examination is held at the end of the lower secondary level, and also at the end of the upper secondary and higher secondary/pre-university level. The Philippines has one public examination in the final year of secondary education. In Myanmar, public examinations are controlled and administered by External Examining Boards. In the case of Thailand, a sampling of students in the 9th and 12th grades of secondary education in different schools is carried by a team of national assessors. Reasons given for not having public examinations at the national level include logistical and administrative difficulties, different standards and expectations, and curricular differences.

In the case of Singapore, students are streamed into three courses (Special, Express and Normal) based on the Primary Leaving School Examination (PSLE) result. The more able students take the Special or Express Course and complete their secondary education in four years.

After completing their lower and upper secondary education; they will take the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education "Ordinary" (GCE "O") level examination. Students with average academic ability take the Normal course and after four years take the GCE "Normal" (N) level examination, then continue for a fifth year of secondary schooling, after which they take the GCE "O" level examination.

Students in Brunei Darussalam and Singapore who have adequate and relevant "O" level results may proceed to the pre-university level. At this level, students will take a course leading to the GCE "Advanced" (A) level examination. Those who pass this examination may be eligible for tertiary education.

Similarly, secondary students in Malaysia takes three types of national/public examination, the last of which is taken after two years of higher secondary education. Passing the Malaysia High School Certificate (STPM) is one of the requirements for entry into universities in the Country.

A number of common measures are adopted by SEAMEO Member Countries to standardize public examinations to ensure that these examinations are valid and reliable. Public examinations are academic achievement tests. Examination boards are formed with the main objective of maintaining standards. There are guidelines for setting examination papers based on table of specifications. Marking is either computerized and/or markers are drawn from a pool of experienced school or university teachers in the relevant subject areas. They develop marking schemes and formulate procedures to coordinate and moderate the marking of the examination scripts. Moreover, few countries give positive weight to disadvantaged regions and students in the grading of public examination.

b.   School-Based Examinations

Summative Examinations

Many types of examinations are conducted at the school level. Secondary schools in the SEAMEO region conduct summative examination in each grade . In most countries, students who do not meet the required criteria are not promoted to the next higher grade. However, in a few counties, there is automatic promotion from one grade to another irrespective of student performance at the end of year summative examination. Students who do not meet the promotion criteria in Singapore, are allowed to advance but laterally transferred to a less demanding secondary course. Thailand’s school clusters are responsible for summative assessments at the school level. Such school clusters in Thailand capitalizes on the physical and human resources and the facilities available among schools in the area, in the organization and preparation of common examination papers.

At the national, state or provincial/level many countries use the standardized norm-referenced form of examination. At the school level non-standardized norm and criterion-referenced tests are administered. The summative school-based examinations set by the teachers in either schools are non-standardized and norm-referenced. There is an expectation of students’ performance for each grade and their performance is measured accordingly in the norm-referenced test. The norm standardized referenced tests are those used by different teachers of a similar grade in assessing the performance of their respective classes.

Formative Examination

All countries conduct formative examinations or continual assessment at all grades and levels of secondary education. These include weekly/monthly/term class tests, projects and regular class assignments set by the respective teachers of the subject. In many of the countries, the grades in formative examinations are not taken into consideration in the selection and promotion of students for the next higher grade of secondary education. For such purposes only the summative examination grades are used. In the case of a few countries, formative examination grades are given weight in the school-based and public summative examination grades. This is for the purpose of promotion to the next higher grade. To some extent this reduces the examination pressure on students in the final school examination and reinforces the importance of consistently learning throughout the year. However, in most countries, the grades in the formative examination are not included in the school-based summative examination grades or in the public examination grade.


Why are there so much energy, time and money spent on the examination system in the region’s public education today? The answer is that people care. State governments are vitally interested in assessing the achievement of students within their boundaries.

The secondary school examination systems in the region are complex and multifaceted undertaking. There is no one best way to assess what students have learned or accomplished in schools. Some methods may work better than others at various grade levels. Some may work better than others with other individuals.

There are so many unanswered question about the value of the regions’ public examination systems and the practice of using the results. Recognizing that this report only provides minimal information about the SEAMEO public examination systems at the secondary level, there is a need to search actively for more information about this topic for public examination systems affect children’s lives.


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Last updated : 15 August 2001