Malaysian children begin schooling from the age of 5 or 6 in kindergarten. Primary one begins the year a child turns 7. There is a primary education leaving exam, called 'Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah', or UPSR (Primary School Assessment Examination) where all primary Six students take before going into secondary schools. The purpose of this examination is to assess the quality of the primary education in Malaysia. An exam called Penilaian Tahap Satu (PTS; First Level Assessment) which was used to measure the ability of bright students, and to allow them to move from Standard 3 to 5 but this exam has since been removed.
Secondary education lasts five years. At the end of the third year, students must sit for the 'Penilaian Menengah Rendah' (PMR; Lower Secondary Assessment), to guide them on what subjects to take next year. The combination of subjects available to Form 4 students vary from one school to another. In the last year, students will sit for 'Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia', or SPM (Malaysian Certificate of Education; equivalent to the British Ordinary or 'O' levels).
Some Chinese choose to study in Independent High School, where most subject are taught in Chinese. Independent high school takes 6 years to complete. Instead of sitting for PMR or SPM, student will sit for UEC in Junior Middle 3 (Form 3) and Senior Middle 3 (Form 6). Some independent high school teach in Malays and Chinese, so that the students can sit for PMR, SPM and UEC.
Students can opt to go to private colleges after secondary studies. Most colleges have education links with overseas universities especially in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Malaysian students abroad study mostly in the UK, United States, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Canada.
Until recently, all subjects except foreign languages (English, Mandarin and Tamil) were taught in Bahasa Melayu (Malay). The result was that while many Malaysian students were proficient with the Malay language, they later struggled with English based tertiary education, especially in overseas universities and colleges.
Currently Mathematics and Science are the only subjects other than languages that are taught in English. The reasoning was that students would no longer be hindered by the language barrier during their tertiary education in fields such as medicine and engineering. All other subjects are taught in Bahasa Melayu.
In addition to the the National Curriculum, Malaysia has many international schools. International schools offer students the opportunity to study the curriculum of another country. These schools mainly cater for the growing expatriate population in the country. International schools include - Australian International School, Malaysia (Australian curriculum), The Alice Smith School (British curriculum), The International School of Kuala Lumpur (International Baccalaureate and American curriculum), amongst others.