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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, September 05, 2010

Improve Our Schools, Not Tinker With Examinations!

Improve Our Schools, Not Tinker With Examinations
M. Bakri Musa

In about two weeks nearly half a million Malaysian school children will be sitting for their UPSR, the national examination taken at the end of Year Six. Today there is raging debate on abolishing this as well as the PMR (taken at Year Nine) examination. A decision is expected within weeks. There is however, minimal discussion on the timing of these examinations, administered as they are so early in the school year.

This year UPSR will be on September 20th, with PMR two weeks later. From then till the year-end holidays in late November, there will be no effective teaching or learning at these schools. With the examinations out of the way, the entire school – students and staff – will already be in holiday mode. The staff will effectively be makan gaji buta (paid but not working).

Come January when these students begin their classes, they would have already suffered through considerable attrition in their learning skills as a result of the three-month hiatus. The first few weeks if not months would be diverted to re-learning lessons of the preceding grade.

The problem only gets worse when they sit for their SPM examination (at Year 11). Although that is held in mid November, the results would not be out till late March. Visit Malaysia at the end and at the first half of the year and you will see thousands of these young boys and girls loitering. Query them and the typical answer would be, “Waiting for exam results!”

The next public option for those wishing to continue their formal schooling would be either matrikulasi or Sixth Form. Both however would not start till June.

When they were sitting for their UPSR and PMR, these students wasted away only three months; with SPM they would be fritting away over half a year, a substantial period in a young student’s life.

This terrible wastage of time escapes the attention of policymakers. They should be addressing this more pertinent and pressing issue instead of the non-productive controversy over abolishing UPSR and PMR.

Better Timing of Examinations

I fail to see why UPSR and PMR have to be set so early in the third term. Delaying it to mid or even late November would greatly extend the students’ instructional time by at least a couple of months.

Similarly I cannot comprehend why the Examination Syndicate takes such an inordinately long time to process the SPM examination. The Syndicate should ban its staff from taking holidays from October till the results are out so it could devote fully to processing the examination. Additionally we could reduce the number of subjects tested to a few core ones like language, science and mathematics. As for the rest, rely on the teachers’ assessments.

Even with the core subjects, have the final examination contribute only about 60-70 percent to the total score, with the rest made up of the student’s year-round work. With modern statistical techniques we should be able to reduce inter-school variations in teachers’ assessments.

After Form Five I see no reason why students could not proceed directly to matrikulasi or Sixth Form come the following January. In the 1960s there was a special entrance examination whose only function was to select students into Sixth Form. Alternatively, use the SPM trial examination as the basis for selection. That would certainly give the examination some clout! An even better proposal would be to make Form Six an integral part of secondary schooling, with everyone expected to continue on.

Keeping these young folks with raging hormones (as those Fifth Formers are) not occupied for over six months only invites trouble. Idleness is the root of mischief; we ignore that at our peril. That is quite apart from the learning attrition that inevitably occurs during the long hiatus.

Rich parents of course have wider options for their children, like enrolling them in the many excellent private pre-university programs. Those are expensive, beyond the reach of the poor. In the context of race-conscious Malaysia, this means Malay and Indian children.

By June when Sixth Form and the other public pre-university programs begin, those children of the rich who are accepted there would have a head start since they had spent the past six months in private pre-university programs. That gives them a substantial advantage in what typically is a one-to-two-year program.

I recently met a group of students enrolled in such a program, this one meant to prepare them for American universities. There was an incentive put into it whereby if the students were to perform well in the first six months, they would be sent abroad earlier.

Guess what? Of the students who excelled and thus sent abroad earlier, the vast majority were non-Malays. Those poor Malay students left behind were confounded. In the poisonous sociopolitical landscape where race considerations are never far from the surface, those poor Malay students not unnaturally felt their acute sense of deficiency, feeding the already ugly stereotype they have of themselves.

However, when I asked them what they were doing in the interim between sitting for their SPM and enrolling in the program, to a person they all replied that they did nothing! They idled the time away while waiting for their results. In contrast, those non-Malay students who did well were already ahead of them at the time of enrolment as they had been in private pre-university classes while waiting for their SPM results.

Interestingly, of the Malaysians who are privileged to attend elite American universities, few are from matrikulasi or Sixth Form. Instead they come from the many private pre-university programs in Malaysia. That is an indictment of our national education system, specifically post-Form Five.

Malay College IB Program

Malay College (MC) is embarking on its IB program next June, after about ten years in the planning. This is certainly long awaited and much needed. Up till now MC is nothing but a glorified middle school; its students have to go elsewhere to prepare for university.

The program will take in only MC students; presumably there will be enough to fill the class. Back in the 1950s and 60s MC had difficulty filling its Sixth Form, and the program was frequently threatened with closure if not for the many Malay students from other schools to fill the vacancies.

Those potential IB students will sit for their SPM this November and then return home to wait for the results. Come June next year, based on their SPM results, they will return to begin their IB class.

IB is radically different to what these students are used to. For one, it is English-medium while MC, like all national schools, is Malay-medium. Those students will thus encounter significant language and other adjustments.

As such I would have expected the policymakers to have planned a suitable “Pre-IB” program to prepare those students. What better time to do that than in the six-month hiatus while waiting for the SPM results! At the very least these students should have intensive English immersion classes.

Without such careful preparation, those first batch of IB students risk not being successful. Were that to happen, then those otherwise bright and promising students would forever suffer the blight of being tagged a failure, and perpetually carry the stigma of the presumed inadequacies of their race.

Public pressure would then arise and the authorities would be tempted to terminate the program. That would be a monumental tragedy not only for those students but also for MC and Malays. Thus far there is little concern among college and ministry officials in avoiding this possible disaster. Based on past experience, this lack of concern is unjustified.

Our education minister and policymakers should not distract themselves with such non-productive issues as scrapping the UPSR and PMR. They should instead focus on making 13 years of schooling as the new norm for our children, as they do in Germany. We should make Form Six an integral part of secondary education, available to everyone. Unlike the Germans however, we should stream our students into the academic, general and vocational streams (comparable to their Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule) not at Year 5 but at the upper secondary (Year 10).

Such a move would better prepare our students for the increasingly competitive world and help advance our economy up the value scale. Tinkering with examinations does nothing; it is a “make busy” project for policymakers.


Anonymous Electrocutioner said...

You seemed to have forgotten another 'institutional' past time - PLKN...

11:10 PM  

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