Improve Our Schools, Not Tinker With Examinations

By 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.

  1. #1 by HJ Angus on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 10:46 am

    Because of political interference in the education system and totally inept Ministers (“I am Malay first…..”) our education system has gone to the dogs and it seems we have to start from scratch again.
    Just one simple example:
    Instead of progressing further using English as the medium of instruction, they went back to BM after a few years of changing the system.
    Such flip-flops show incompetence and damage the system

  2. #2 by frustrated doctor on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 11:40 am

    My parents were both secondary school teachers. They realised that the long wait for the results was due to all the tinkering taking place with the results which were already marked before December as they were also invigilators. They found non Malay students were given a credit with only 3 mistakes in objective questions and Malay students with even 5 mistakes were getting distinctions. This was due to them going through the exam questions with the students and finding out how many mistakes they made after the exams. How come objective papers which are computer marked take so long for the results to come out!

    Also, an assessment type of exam is open to manipulations. What would happen to a student like in today’s papers :-

    How come those who can afford are all sending their students over-seas. Isn’t it because that theirs in a meritocracy. Malay students from residential schools are sent over-sea by the govt even before their results are out. The comparison by the writer of the article is only between those who are not in residential schools but in the normal stream.

    Get a meritocracy in place and only then can people be confident of the education system. If you ask any non-Malay and even well to do Malays, they will all echo the same line that they prefer sending their children to International school and over-seas as they have lost confidence in the pathetic education system which is leaving out key ingredients such as Hang Tuah and Yap Ah Loy to pander to a Malay-ethnic history. I don’t think our students are exposed to great world civilizations such as the Greek and Roman but instead to mainly Islamic history only in higher secondary.

    Keep religion out of the class room and get a meritocracy in place. All other arguments are secondary!

  3. #3 by son of perpaduan on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 12:15 pm

    With the current heavy lambast from all direction of criticism, umno run government now will never able to take care of Malaysian future. Therefore, the Malaysian are the one who is on the other way round who took more concern of their future generation instead. Now we see rakyat inherited the responsibilities of future of Malaysia more than anyone else in the Barisan Nasional coalition who cracking their head in political survival turbulence.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 12:17 pm

    After abolishing the UPSR & PMR exams, the education minister will implement the pay-for-your-grades system. Eg RM100 would get oneself a Grade A in a particular subject, and RM20 a Grade E. Grade F will be given to those who pay less than RM20.

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 12:20 pm

    Actually this whole thing with examination and UPSR is strange. OK. I don’t like it but its not really that big deal as far as I can see. Like Dr. Musa says, there is so many other things wrong with education here, exams is not really that high on the list.

    How did this jump out as an important issue I don’t understand. Is it true its about a people trying to look busy?

  6. #6 by Godfather on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 12:31 pm

    Bolehland has the most screwed-up education system in the world. Yes, even African nations don’t have the flip-flops seen in education. First, education in English, then in Bahasa, then switch Science and English back to English, then switching them back to Bahasa….nincompoops, all these policy-makers.

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 12:44 pm

    Our education system has been manipulated in2 different forms, like apple, orange, rambutan, durian
    Yet d UmnoB-controlled gomen claimed dat it’s OK 2 compare them, same same 1
    A CGPA of 4 fr an ezi route (1 year) is d same as or better than d CGPA of 4 fr a tougher route (2 years)
    Most Malay students now get in2 local public universities 1 year younger than most nonMalay students
    Results of social engineering, smarter kids?

  8. #8 by k1980 on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 12:47 pm

    Better still, the SPM, STPM and university-level exams be abolished along with the upsr and pmr. Then the 28 million bolehlanders can all graduate from U with PhDs. Then we will have sods like Dr Saiful who did not cebuk-ed for 2 days, Dr Kogan who liked to steal cars as well as Dr Namewee who likes to say “Nah!”

  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 1:28 pm

    One has to look at the reasons they put forth to replace UPSR and PMR. Are they good reasons?
    First the proponents for abolishment argue that too many examinations promote rote learning, stultify development of analytical process and creative thought discourage students devleopment of EQ in sports and co-curricular activities!

    However if that’s the case then one should have no examinations at all, which is not what they are exactly saying! They are saying instead that there is a need for examinations but school based examinations without stress of country wide one standard examination!

    This raises doubts whether a school-based assessment system will be open to abuse. Some good schools with good teachers may set reasonable standards whilst some bad schools with bad teachers may set low or arbitrary standards that don’t prepare the students for their public examination in year 11, SPM! The proposed school examinations set by school teachers is only a standard set by their own level of competence or incompetence, and if an incompetent lot of school teachers want to “sendiri shiok” they can always lower their school based examinations’ standards to give all their students “A”s, which make them look good as teachers, when the students ought to deserve “F”s by better schools’ standards – then how???

    Besides the whole purpose of nation wide examination at UPSR and PSM is to set milestones and assess by a uniform national criteria – as near as possible – from these milestones, like a barometer both the students progress so far and by their results the effectiveness of their teachers and teaching methods and the administrative skill of the headmasters as well! If this is conceded an objective of exams, then present nation wide uniform exams measure these variables better than school based exams! Besides students take public exams more seriously than their own schools’ tests! And the fact that whether one automatically gets promoted to next level, even if he fails UPSR and PSM, does not argue their superfluity if the rationale is based on assessing students, teachers and head-masters…..

    The argument that exams make one prone to rote learning and not analytical in thinking is another read herring because the students are rote and not thinking because the teachers are not teaching in a way to stimulate their independent thinking. And also the examinations are, in alignment with such educational shortfalls, tailored to test how best they could remember and regurgitate like parrots rather than thinking on their own – the fault likes in the way the examinations are structured and not existence of examinations per se for one can have examinations structured to reward creative and analytical thinking with marks than mere regurgitation of memorized facts!

    The further argument that school based exams will help relieve the govt the burden of expenditure heavier in public based nation wide exams is the least meritorious. This is because education should be prioritized. The govt saves more money by not indulging in mega wasteful projects awarded to cronies that use the financial benefit to sustain their political patrons in power!

    The reasons for replacing existing public exams by school based system don’t sound very cogent. It does not touch at all the basics that are wrong with the education system that others here have already amplified. To try show case a revamp of the present system without demonstrating how it really represents a step forward arouses misgivings that it may actually take us two steps backward instead.

  10. #10 by k1980 on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 1:53 pm

    Already there exist leakages of questions in the public exams on an annual basis. With school-based examinations, there is absolute guarantee of even more widespread leakages of questions, such as the teacher setting the questions passing them onto his/her children studying in the same school. Do we want to have more cheating of this kind when the public exams are abolished?

    The headmaster may in fact encourage such leakages because it is the only way for his students to achieve high grades which in turn earns promotion for him and his teachers when their school gains entry into the “High Performance School” category for its glowing academic successes.

  11. #11 by Jeffrey on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 2:04 pm

    Some of these teachers give private tuition to students of their own schools to eke their income. Nothing could be easier to get business by making sure they drill their paying tuition students in Q & As of the topics that they themselves will be seting in school based examinations.

  12. #12 by k1980 on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 2:23 pm

    Overheard in classroom for Form 3 students after PMR has been abolished—

    Teacher: OK, you all take note. For the Science Multiple-Choice paper set by me tomorrow, the answers for Questions 1 to 10 is ‘A’. For Questions 11 to 20, the answer is ‘B’. For Questions 21 to 30, the answer is ‘C’. And for Questions 31 to 40, the answer is ‘D’.

    Students: Hurray. Now we can all get A++

  13. #13 by dcasey on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 4:11 pm

    Reading M. Bakri’s article, one can’t help feeling the govt’s education policy towards Malaysian children is hypocritical and lob-sided. Para-phrasing his words, he said:-
    1. Malay College (MC) is embarking on its IB program next June;
    2. The program will take in only MC students;
    3. 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;
    4. At the very least these students should have intensive English immersion classes; and
    5. those first batch of IB students risk not being successful…would forever suffer the blight of being tagged a failure…perpetually carry the stigma of the presumed inadequacies of their race.

    It seems that the govt is trying hard to be like a dog chasing its tail. It goes round and round in unending circles trying to give an unfair advantage handicap to a selected few malays to study in a completely English medium in Malay College (MC). If that is so, why publicly and adamantly stick to the policy that our education must be in the Bahasa Malaysia (BM) medium (even for Maths and English now) for the general masses, and yet throw these few malay students into the English medium. Its amazing how the govt of today can find the heart (and conscience) to let the bulk of the Malays in Malaysia grope in the dark as English illiterate and then on the other hand give special treatment to a bunch of selected Malays to be English savvy. Why being such hypocrites? Actually the solution is so simple and attainable. Change back the school education system to be in English medium or if not at the very least allow urban schools as well as private schools the choice to conduct lessons in English. Don’t assume and treat the majority of urban and rural Malays as undeserved and condemned of their right as performers in the globalised world. Have the politicians in the govt read or even heard of Disney’s story of Cinderella? Why stomp and kick down people of their own race by implementing a policy they know is failing and yet hand-picking a few lucky ones for preferential treatment? Are the majority unlucky Malays to be treated as “adopted” off-springs as in the story of “Cinderella” and the few lucky ones its legitimate “off-springs”?.

    M. Bakri is spot on by saying that 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. The only reason why the non-Malay kept on to stay ahead is not because they are born rich but because the parents struggle daily and willing to make sacrifices so that they can spend their last ringgit to advance their kids in education. They won’t sit to wait for hand-outs by the govt. For the sake of Malaysia, it is hoped that all Malays will emulate this positive attitude and strive to be successful.

  14. #14 by frustrated doctor on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 4:50 pm

    Every month I put 500rm towards an educational scholarship fund for my 3 kids. I don’t expect the govt to pay anything for them as they are non-bumis. When they finish high school, each will get about 50K in college fees and 30K for me to use for them then. Total 80K each. Do the Malays do anything to prepare for their kids. I see all my Malay friends happily going for overseas holidays etc. Of course for them the govt will take care of them by putting them into residential schools, Mara colleges etc. If these are for the poor, I won’t mind. But here, I see even the middle class availing of all these. Where were the parents savings for them. They complain that we are privileged but do they see the pain we go to from the time a child is born.

  15. #15 by boh-liao on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 5:49 pm

    Teachers 2 students: OK, ingat, I give U what U want, U give I what I want
    Students 2 teachers: Sure lah, same same

  16. #16 by boh-liao on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 7:11 pm

    Wow, #14 nonMalay doc kaya raya lah, can save 80K x 3 = 240K 4 his/her 3 kids
    Decendant of beggar or prostitute shld b grateful 2 UmnoB/BN gomen 2 b given chance 2 earn n save so much
    Don’t b green eyes over Malay friends happily going 4 overseas tours
    It’s their Never Ending Privilege n they earned it by hving d right kulitfication
    Y need 2 save $$$ 4 children’s or grandchildren’s education? Jialat
    Just keep voting 4 UmnoB/BN cukup lah
    Doc, U no like it, just keep 2 yourself, no write complaint, nanti seditious baru tahu
    Then who looks after your 3 kids, think mah, don’t play play

  17. #17 by disapointed86 on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 9:18 pm

    well said Mr. Bakri Musa. I could not agree with you more in saying that Najib’s government is wasting time meddling on the UPSR & PMR issue. I was wondering whether if UPSR & PMR to be abolished, will it benefits the under performed student? Like what you’ve said that non-malays are performing better than the malays. Therefore i believe the government is looking into solutions to tackle the issue & instead they came out with an idea to abolish UPSR & PMR? Very poor decision from my point of view. If the cabinet made the decision to abolish UPSR & PMR & replace it with more assignment and practical-based learning , my grave concern is who will assess the work? will they be any discrimination towards the non-malays? I believe the headmaster issue in JOHOR had already indicates that after 53 years of independence, the social gap between races have widened.

  18. #18 by kpt99 on Monday, 6 September 2010 - 11:47 pm

    The lebih kurang attitude degenerated by lebih kurang BN has totally failed the nation.NEAC said that the education system has failed to produce the desirable human capital needed by the country.There are too many flip flopping polices in education system.5 Billions PPSMI of Mahatir to 5 billion MBMMBI of Muhyiddin.Trilingual in the learning of maths and science in schools.Primary-mother tongues,secondary-Bahasa Melayu,Form 6 or Matriculation-English,University-BM and BI.Where can find such learning method in this world except in this bolehland.

You must be logged in to post a comment.