Edu nation: Are we teaching or punishing our students?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 15, 2019 - April 21, 2019.
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Examination-centric education kills creativity. It produces passive students and diminishes their skills. In fact, low skill development is partly due to exam-centric education. This culture also inhibits effective teaching and learning. These are some of the headlines that dominate a Google search on exam-centric education.

Is our education system preparing our children for the jobs of the future and the challenges ahead or are we developing expert test-takers?

Our education system has three major examinations throughout the 11 years of schooling. UPSR is conducted for Standard 6 students at the end of primary school, PT3 is for lower secondary students in Form 3 and SPM is for the completion of secondary education at Form 5.

These exams are skewed towards academics, although some changes have been made to make them more holistic, especially the introduction of school-based assessment for UPSR and PT3, and elements of higher order thinking to the assessments. UPSR and SPM are national examinations but PT3 is a central assessment done nationally. UPSR and SPM are managed by the Malaysian Examination Syndicate under the Ministry of Education (MoE) but PT3 is a central assessment managed by individual schools with some form of standardisation, guidelines and question bank set by MoE.

The school-based assessment of UPSR and PT3 is intended to assess students on a broader range, including formative assessment to gauge students’ mastery of subject matter, psychometric evaluation as well as sports and co-curriculum assessments. But no matter how much of these non-academic elements are added to the assessments, they are insignificant and do not contribute to the final academic results. Whether it is a national or school-based assessment, the fact remains that examinations are still the focus, and the aim is to achieve top results academically.

Is our education system, therefore, fulfilling the objective of nurturing students to learn and develop holistically in terms of intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical development with a sense of national identity as prescribed by the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) through these examinations? The MEB recognises the fact that there are public debates on the issue of teaching to the test, and whether national examinations should be abolished.

PT3, which replaced PMR in 2014, was meant to provide a more holistic education. Although the number of subjects remained the same at eight, PT3 was aimed at eliminating an exam-oriented assessment, said the then Education Director General Datuk Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof. There was no written exam for Geography and History but the students were tasked with completing project-based assignments, much like completing a research paper. But this lesser emphasis on exams was short-lived. Lo and behold, this year, Geography and History are back with written exams, along with project-based assignments. Regressive or progressive?

It is also mentioned in the MEB that curriculum and assessment must be aligned with international benchmarks to ensure that Malaysian students are acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for their success in the 21st century and beyond. If we compare ourselves with the top performing countries in the PISA test, none of them has as many national or central assessments, although China, Hong Kong and South Korea have extremely tough college entrance exams. The British Cambridge checkpoint exams for lower secondary are not compulsory and the subjects tested are mainly English, Mathematics and Science.

Another worrying trend in our education system is that the school dropout rate is the highest between Forms 3 and 5, due to lack of interest, poverty or mental health issues. School-based assessments should help the teachers pick out students who need intervention coaching and those who are at risk of dropping out. They need to reach the basic levels of reading, mathematics and science, benchmarked against the PISA. Burdening them with exams and other subjects will not help. They need core knowledge to function in the real world.

The number of school dropouts is about a quarter of the number who fail SPM. Those without SPM certification will have no qualification to show for their 11 years of schooling. According to the Pengumuman Analisis Keputusan SPM 2018 report, 12.5% of students failed History. Some 48,637 failed SPM because they failed History compared with 6.6% or 25,787 who failed Bahasa Malaysia. History has been a compulsory subject since 2013. Why do students need to pass History, which has three written exam papers, to get a job and be recognised as having the minimum level of national identity? Is national identity measurable?

There is no doubt that exams are important and that they are useful to measure competence but there is a need to prioritise. Rote learning to gain high marks in the exams is not learning. School-based assessments are actually a step in the right direction but when coupled with exam grading, the concept becomes somewhat contradictory. The right assessments are known to improve the chances for disadvantaged students, helping them overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

The buzzwords for education in this day and age are student-centred learning, problem-solving abilities, creativity, work collaboration and skills needed to navigate the IR4.0 world. MoE’s players may have changed but the bottom line is, our children have suffered enough from being lab rats. Are we teaching or punishing them with exams?


Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia

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