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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.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Test Scores, Meritocracy, and a Dysfunctional Education System

Test Scores, Meritocracy, and a Dysfunctional Education System
M. Bakri Musa



Three recent and apparently unrelated news items reflect our distorted view of merit and our dysfunctional education system. We believe that merit is measured only by test scores. As for our flawed education system, its current minister is seeking UNESCO’s help while his immediate predecessor commissioned the World Bank. As in the past, there will be an expensive and voluminous report, and that will be the end of it.

The first news item was the law lecturer who flunked over 97 percent of her students; second, the tragic death of a college dropout at UTM’s campus dormitory in Johor Baru; and third, Prime Minister Najib’s announcement of special ‘merit’ scholarships.

That law lecturer is actually proud of the fact that only 4 out of her 157 students passed her test. She is now a cause celebre among those who have legitimate misgivings of our education system. However, I would gently suggest that perhaps teaching is not her calling. That assessment would change of course had she approached her dean early in the academic term to discuss her classroom problems.

For her to realize only at the end of the year that nearly her entire class was not prepared to undertake rigorous law studies is incredulous. She must have been totally out of touch with her class. If what she claimed were true, that should have been obvious within the first few weeks, not at the end of the year.

The second, the death on UTM campus, was tragic in many ways. This, together with the recent snafu over processing applicants at the supposedly ‘apex’ Universiti Sains Malaysia, reflects the quality of our campus management. Her and her baby’s bodies were not found until two days later. Where were her dorm mates? Were they deaf and blind? This is a pathetic reflection of the campus social environment.

The university released a statement that she was a fourth-year unmarried ‘dropout’ who had been renting a room from the university. No mention of condolence to the poor victim’s family. I wonder if the campus Imam had performed the funeral rites on her and comforted her grieving family. More than likely, he too had condemned her for her sins. If I am wrong in my assumption, I unreservedly apologize to the Imam.

A fourth-year student just does not ‘drop out.’ She must have had other than academic difficulties, most likely her pregnancy. That undoubtedly was a mistake, but not a reason for dropping out. The university could have granted her leave of absence. To expel someone at that level is unnecessary.

Nor should the UTM victim pay for her one mistake with her life, as well as that of her innocent baby. That she felt isolated and without any help right on campus is an indictment of her university. The campus should not have punished her or aggravated her problem by not offering her medical and counseling care. The campus environment must be supportive such that students like her could readily seek help.

The university should provide adequate sex education and the necessary medical services. This is not just to prevent unwanted pregnancies but also the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. The moral qualms of the officials should not blind them to the needs of their students.

The third news item is the giddiness that greets Prime Minister Najib’s announcement of special scholarships based only on ‘merit.’ This response is most pronounced from those who feel that awards where Malays would predominate, as with JPA scholarships, would by definition lack ‘merit.’

Najib’s announcement followed an earlier controversy where students with 21 A’s in the SPM examination were denied the honor in favor of those with only 10 or 11 A’s. Never mind the absurdity of sitting for so many subjects. ‘Merit’ to these folks is a simplistic concept, something that can readily be measured by a paper and pencil (or pen) test. If that were the case, there would be no need for selection committees or interviews, just use computers to select the candidates.

These folks would be bewildered if told that even top universities have large admissions department to look out for potential talents that could have been missed from just looking at their test scores alone. For its part, JPA has not seen fit to learn from the great universities on how they select their candidates, like having them write personal essays. With JPA scholarships, I would have eligible candidates write personal essays in both Malay and English, in addition to separate interviews conducted exclusively in Malay and English.

One company has interviews with a twist. A day before the interview, the candidates were assigned a real-life problem. During the interview the candidate would discuss his or her approach to solving it. It is a revelation to see how candidates approach a problem.

Those who view merit strictly as test scores obviously do not have the humility or capacity to understand the limitations of those tests. There are at least three variables to a test. One is the test itself, its validity and reliability. Meaning, does it really measure ‘merit’ (however we define the term) and are its results reproducible? Then there are the students. The third would be the teacher and her teaching. The students may be intelligent, willing and capable, but if her teaching skills are wanting, the results would also be poor.

It is presumptuous if not outright arrogant for that law lecturer to assume that she is a superb teacher and that the fault lies entirely with her students. Even if she is a superb teacher (or others have convinced her that she is), she still could not attribute her class failure entirely to her students. She may have been inept in designing effective test questions. The only way for her to prove that her tests were valid would be to administer them to two control groups: one would be those who should pass her examination (positive control), and the other would be where you expect them not to do well (negative control).

The first could be her senior students and the second, other than law students. If the first group excelled on her test while the second did poorly, then she could rightly conclude that her examination questions were valid. Short of that she is unjustified in assuming that her students were all duds and that her teaching and tests were blameless.

If as she claimed that her students were totally unprepared to pursue law studies, a good or at least diligent teacher would have changed her emphasis and approach to bring them up to par. There is no point piling on materials that the students could not absorb. If need be she could have alerted her dean on the need for remedial instructions. Perhaps she could have asked the dean to put the entire class in a year of preparatory instructions.

Any or all of these approaches would have been more productive. Had she done so she would have won the eternal gratitude of her students. She would also make a national contribution by producing a class of competent lawyers. More importantly, she would not have been fired. Instead all she achieved with her strutting was to brand her entire class as failures, a stigma that will tag them for the rest of their lives. In the process she also branded herself a failure as a teacher.

On many American campuses, even at the most prestigious, there are preparatory summer classes before the new academic year where students could enroll to better prepare themselves. Many students, even bright ones, avail themselves to such programs. Even top MBA programs have similar summer programs so students could brush up on their mathematics, for example.

It is amazing how once you have correctly identified the problems, it is remarkable easy to craft the needed solutions. On the other hand, if you fail to identify or comprehend the problems clearly, then you are more likely to seek gimmicky solutions. Najib Razak’s plan for ‘merit’ scholarships is one such example.

Najib is frankly admitting that the current program is based on other than merit. I wonder how those current JPA scholarship holders feel now that the awards they had worked so hard for had been trashed by no less than the Prime Minister.

Like the USIM law lecturer, Najib Razak is confused on the meaning of education and learning, as well as the significance of tests, test scores, and merit.

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