This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 20 - 26, 2016.
The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) has been designed to ensure that the national education system achieves quality targets and to improve Malaysia’s current standing in the international assessments, from the bottom third to the top third, within 15 years. This would make Malaysia’s education system one of the fastest-improving in the world. It is a tall order indeed but not impossible as some school systems in Boston (the US), Ontario (Canada) and Armenia did so within six years.
It has been three years since the inception of MEB. Are we still on the right track?
The introduction of school-based assessment (Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah or PBS) in 2011 for Standard 1, and 2012 for Form 1, was an attempt to do away with the overemphasis on an examination-oriented system and high-stakes testing. However, can we really disregard traditional examinations, which are already deeply embedded in our system?
National exam results determine the performance and ranking of schools, and whether the school is eligible for special awards — a recognition for outstanding academic performance — such as the much sought-after High Performance School (HPS) status.
There are many benefits of a HPS status, including an increase in budget allocations. To sustain the status, schools have to maintain the academic benchmark that has been set, or risk losing the status and perks that come with it. Students’ academic results are also used to determine their eligibility for boarding schools and scholarships.
So, it is not just parents who are obsessed with academic performance; the recognition and rewards that come with these achievements are important as well.
Those who started PBS in Standard 1 will be sitting for their UPSR this year. Just like it had been for the first group of PT3 in the inaugural PT3 in 2014, there are too many uncertainties. Parents are most concerned about the abrupt changes to the syllabus and, more importantly, the marking schemes. It seems that the marking schemes for these exams have become too rigid, in an attempt to standardise marking across the board and to ensure that all teachers are on the same page.
These marking guidelines and standardisations seem to be in contradiction to the attempts to ensure that the exams are not “too exam oriented”, or to evaluate higher order thinking skills. As a parent who has spoken to teachers directly about this issue, I am very concerned that marks are deducted so easily — even if only one word from the answer scheme is not adhered to.
I would like to suggest that the answer scheme or guidelines to answering test questions be made public, so that all students and their parents would be privy to such information should they wish to know.
It is not that I condone this practice of trying to beat the system by getting the correct answers, but that seems to be the only way to get high marks in this country. One does not necessarily learn to learn, but learns by rote in every possible way to ensure that one gets high marks by sticking as closely as possible to the answer schemes. This is because the system encourages, recognises and rewards such a practice.
But would such a practice and norm bring us closer to the goal of being in the top third of the international assessments? How do we change the system to ensure that students are actually learning?
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 results showed that the majority (51.8%) of 15-year-old Malaysian students struggle to master basic reading skills and science and mathematical concepts. Education reforms may look promising but they are not sufficient to ensure that the students are learning and that standards are raised.
Our current curriculum is tightly pegged to the syllabus. Teachers are known to rush through classes to complete the syllabus, especially for those sitting for national exams. Students are tested more on content knowledge than application outside the scope of the topic.
We need to ensure that our science and mathematics syllabus are properly benchmarked against international standards, and that it focuses on understanding and the application of the concepts, as it is required in PISA.
A quick fix of putting together higher order thinking questions does not necessarily lead to a deep understanding of the concepts, and neither does contradictory rigorous marking methods. Rather, good teaching will have a significant impact on students’ learning.
There is too much emphasis on curriculum revamping and not enough on development in teaching. It has been proven that teachers’ effectiveness is the strongest contributor to students’ performance, as acknowledged in the MEB. However, there are no substantial efforts channelled towards this.
We need to recognise and reward good teachers with salaries that are on par with international standards, and provide incentives, perks and professional development that match that of their peers’ worldwide.
While efforts are being made to improve the performance of new teachers, low-performing teachers should be removed. These are some of the reforms that have been taken by the Boston Public Schools, which enabled them to improve in six years.
The negative impact of low-performing teachers is severe. Educational loss due to bad teaching is irreversible, and these students stand very little chance of recovering the lost years. Based on our PISA results, the alarm bells are ringing.
Put high-performing teachers in high-need schools at the primary level and remove the bad ones, and use internationally certified appraisal methods to evaluate the teachers’ performance. These are the proven ways to keep us on track with our aspiration. This is the much-needed damage control that we need to inject into Malaysia’s education system — not revamping the curriculum or training teachers in patriotism.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia — an educational lobby that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders