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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #48

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont'd)


Testing! Testing!…I, 2, 3!

The bane of testing in Asian schools is that they are being regarded as the end-all and be-all of learning. Even more sinister, we look upon test scores as the only dimension on which to assess an individual. Test scores become means of permanently labeling someone. We should look upon test scores “not as means of confirmation of fate but as clues to improving children’s learning,” to quote the Annenberg Challenge.

Testing is one measure of accountability, serving as an effective feedback for students as well as their teachers and schools. We all learn at different paces; it is part of the normal curve. We should not infer anything more beyond that. Take learning to read. All too often we label someone who is slow to read or who reads at an older age as a “slow learner,” and that tag would be permanently etched on the individual. Parents’ and teachers’ expectations are now predicated on that label; expectations often becoming fulfilling (Rosenberg phenomenon). Learning to read is like learning to ride a bicycle. Some of us learn it quickly and at a younger age, others take longer and have to be older – the bell curve distribution. We would never make the prediction that because someone learns to ride a bicycle earlier and faster that he or she would later become a champion cyclist. Yet we do that all the time with examination scores. Examinations and tests are an important part of the feedback and accountability process, but we should not be unduly obsessed with them or to presume making unrealistic prediction of someone’s potential.

We are now finding that dyslexic children are not slow learners or readers, rather they perceive the written word differently. This particular insight has helped thousands of children become better learners and productive citizens. We certainly would not label such dyslexics as Albert Einstein and Ted Turner (of CNN) as “dumb” or “slow.” Some like Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie became great writers.

An appropriate and more realistic perspective on examination and test scores is greatly needed. My reform de-emphasizes national examinations and calls for eliminating SPM (Year 11 examination). With the integration of Islamic schools into the national stream, STAM would also be eliminated.

I would also change the way we assess students and in calculating the final scores on national examinations. Currently Malaysia, like other Asian countries, relies exclusively on the end-of-year assessment. The students’ entire career depends on that test. If they are not feeling well that day or if there are interruptions in their personal lives like floods or a family emergency, then they would be doomed. No wonder the heightened anxiety and obsession.

I would limit standardized tests to only the four core subjects. In addition students would be continuously assessed by their teachers on all subjects throughout the year (the GPA), based on their class performance, homework assignments, as well as on regular mini tests. In ranking students for streaming and other purposes, I would use both the GPA as well as the scores on standardized tests, giving equal weight to both. Further I would use the standardized tests to evaluate both the schools and teachers, and to compare their performances with their peers of comparable size and demographic mix. In this way we extend the utility of such examinations. By reducing the number of subjects tested in standardized examinations, we reduce the temptations of teachers to “teach to the test,” thus giving them room for individual creativity. More importantly, it would greatly reduce the current obsession parents, teachers, and students have with examinations and test scores – the curse of Asian educational system.

I would modify the scoring of national examinations so that the final test would contribute only 70 percent to the total score; the rest (30 percent) would come from the teachers’ evaluation of the students’ year-round work (GPA). To correct for interschool variations in GPAs (some teachers are more generous, others more strict) the school’s GPA would be correlated with the students’ overall performance at the national examinations. There are reliable and valid statistical tools to do this. A school whose students’ aggregate GPAs correlate well with scores on the national examination would need no adjustment to their GPAs. But if the school’s aggregate GPAs are much higher than the scores on the national examination, then we know that the school is rather lenient, so the students’ GPAs would have to be lowered to factor in this lax grading. Conversely if students with average GPAs score highly on the national examination, then the school is strict with its assessments. To be fair to the students, the school’s GPA would have to be adjusted upwards to compensate for this.

There could be further statistical refinements by comparing the GPAs and scores on national examination of the top, middle, and bottom 10 percent of the students.

For the UPSR (Year 6), only the GPAs at Years 5 and 6 would count. They would each contribute 15 points to the 30-point final marks. For the PMR (Year 9), the GPAs for all three years of middle school (7, 8 and 9) would contribute equally (10 percent each) to the final score. For the STP (Year 13), the GPAs for the first two years of high school (Years 10 and 11) would each contribute 5 percent; the GPA for Year 12 would contribute 8; and Years 13, 12 percent to the final score of 30. Thus the students’ day-to-day performance during the entire high school years would contribute to the final STP score.

This would give a more holistic and thus fairer assessment. It would also have better predictive value. Such a mechanism would impress upon the students that their work during the whole year is important and contributes directly to the final score. This reinforces the point that studying is a long term and continual affair, not something you cram just before the finals. This would also reduce considerably the anxiety associated with the present system where the students’ entire future would be dependent on that few fateful days of testing.

Such a system would give teachers leeway to teach beyond the test. It would also discourage the present end-of-year practice where the class is consumed with “spotting” examination questions – not a particularly useful or educational exercise.

Although I call for eliminating SPM, nonetheless there could still be a national examination in the core subjects but the scores would not count. They would be used only as a trial or yardstick to measure the student’s progress as well as an assessment of the school. The school and teachers could then use the information to make the necessary changes or areas to focus on for the next two years. Although UPSR and PMR would test only the four core subjects, for ranking and streaming purposes, the GPAs of the other subjects not tested by the national examination would also be considered and be given equal weight. This would prevent students from slacking or not paying attention to these non-core subjects. These GPAs would have to be adjusted as per the formula discussed earlier to account for interschool variability.

The terminal Form 6 examination (STP) would see the most changes. Students would take six (the four core subjects plus two more) instead of the present five subjects. I would eliminate the current useless General Paper (Kertas Am). Those interested in medicine and the life sciences would take biology, physical science (physics combined with chemistry), and an Arts elective, together with the core subjects of mathematics (preferably calculus), English, and Malay. Aspiring engineers would take physics, chemistry, and mathematics, together with an arts elective plus the core subjects of English and Malay. A would-be economist or social science major would also have to take one of the sciences together with mathematics (preferably calculus and or statistics), and of course English and Malay.

Under the present system with the focus on matrikulasi and the consequent de-emphasis on Sixth Form, STP is fast losing its popularity. In 1995 there were over 60,000 candidates sitting for STP, in 2001 barely over 40,000. Students are abandoning Sixth Form. The irrelevance of STP can be gauged by the fact that the most popular subjects remain Malay Studies and History, while subjects like mathematics and biology account for only about 10 percent of the total. If we consider the Islamic stream with nearly 29,000 students sitting for STAM, one can see how far detached from the real world the system of education in Malaysia is, especially for Muslims.

My proposal would restore the original primacy of Sixth Form. Having these classes would have a positive ripple effect on the quality of teaching on the lower levels. The laboratory and library facilities would have to be improved and this would benefit the rest of the school. Having better qualified teachers teaching Sixth Form would also enhance the overall standard of teaching at that school. Eliminating SPM and STAM, and testing only the four core subjects in PMR and USPR would greatly reduce the load of the examination syndicate. The results then could be released much earlier. More specifically, students in Year 6 need not have to sit for their examination in early September. That could now be deferred to late November, thus giving pupils the whole of September, October, and part of November for meaningful class time. By eliminating SPM, students would continue directly into Sixth Form in January instead of having to wait six months for their examination results.

With a reduced load, the examination syndicate could undertake much-needed research to enhance the reliability, validity, and predictability of its tests. It could also present the test scores in a meaningful format so parents could gauge the quality of the schools to help parents make the appropriate selection for their children. Schools could be ranked nationally, by state, with their peers of comparable size, location, and socioeconomic indicators. Schools could also be ranked by their academic strengths. My point is the more information parents have, the more informed would be their decision.

Next: Schools of Second Chance

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