The test is optional, but 95 per cent of parents have chosen to pay the entry fee for papers in thinking skills and Malay. Students with Chinese and Tamil backgrounds are required to take an additional paper in those languages. This express class system moves them up from standard three to standard five.
There is no quota of places in standard five. All students who demonstrate the necessary skills and aptitude are assured of a place.
The express class system is not new to Malaysia and pupils have been double-promoted in this way on an individual basis within schools for many years. What is new is the formalisation of this process into a national examination with papers set and marked by the Malaysian examinations board.
Even in such an exam-oriented society, doubts have been voiced at the prospect of yet another test when pupils already sit exams at the ages of 11, 14 and 16.
P Ramanathan, president of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, said: "What is going to happen is that tuition classes will flourish and work books will flood the market. There will be so much focus on the standard three examinations that tremendous pressure will be put on the children with two exams in four years".
And, he added, schools will inevitably be judged on results, which in turn will make them increasingly geared to preparing children for the tests.
Deputy education minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn said parents and children should not be unduly worried about the examination which, he claimed, is intended to be diagnostic and predictive.
Another scheme, which will take place on a much smaller scale, is a proposal to identify and nurture gifted children. In a recent working paper, The Curriculum in the 21st Century, the education ministry's Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) outlined its plans for a pilot programme for gifted children.
It argued that 3 per cent of children in this group needed to be educated in special classes or schools with their similarly able peers. The children would continue to follow the national curriculum but would be taught an enriched version of the standard curriculum by specially selected and trained teachers.
State education departments have been asked to draw up lists of potentially gifted children. The selection process will be a co-operative venture between teachers and parents, with successful pupils being invited to sit a series of specially designed tests.
Dr Hanafi Mohamed Kamal, director of the CDC, said the tests would measure the intelligence and creativity of the child, but other factors such as emotional maturity and social skills would also be taken into account.
The pilot programme is being restricted to approximately 60 districts. The children selected will come from standards three and four, ranging in age from eight to 10, and will be promoted straight into an express class in standard five. It is intended that all the gifted children from a district will be placed in the same class of no more than 25 pupils.
Dr Hanafi insisted any expansion of the scheme would depend on the outcome of the pilot programme.