How low can you go?

by Leanne Goh
The Star
October 27, 2013

It is common knowledge among teachers that a student who keeps flunking the school test can actually get a decent grade in the SPM exam.

What is the passing mark for an SPM subject? Many teachers estimate it to be seriously low for some papers, way lower than the school’s benchmark.

WHEN I last wrote that more than 100,000 students, or close to a quarter of those sitting for the SPM English, were at risk of leaving school without an SPM certificate, the response was unexpected.

“Ms Goh,” I was told, “don’t worry, the marks may be lowered even further to allow many to pass.”

And that view, I was surprised to learn, was shared by many.

Teachers who have been teaching upper secondary students as well as examiners who have been grading the exam scripts for many years let on that the passing marks are not all they seem to be.

We were discussing the passing grade in view of the new ruling that effective 2016, a pass in SPM English is compulsory for students to graduate from school with an SPM certificate. This is in addition to the long-standing compulsory pass in Bahasa Melayu, and a pass in History that comes into effect for this year’s SPM candidates.

The passing mark for school tests is 40% but it is deemed significantly lower for public exams.

It is common knowledge among teachers that a student who keeps flunking the school test can actually get a decent grade in the SPM exam.

In an anecdote shared by a teacher, he said his colleague once told a school prefect: “If you pass your Add Maths, I’ll chop off my head!” And the prefect did better than just scrape through; he got a credit.

An examiner of 20 years for one of the SPM Maths papers, who has since retired, shares that the mode was always 10 to 20 class marks, that is, the majority scored between 10 and 20 marks, creating a skewed graph instead of a bell curve.

This has not been reflective in the actual results simply because it is possible for the grading system to be “adjusted” to show higher passes.

Examiners, who are usually teachers with many years of experience, are able to estimate or extrapolate based on the number of passes announced by the ministry against the students’ marks.

One SPM Add Maths examiner believes that the passing rate for the subject could be as low as the mid-teens based on how his students perform in school. And teachers are always sharing notes among themselves after the exam results are out.

Though public exam grading is kept under wraps and examiners are sworn to secrecy, teachers say that they have come to the conclusion that the passing grade for certain subjects could be as low as 20 marks, or possibly lower, especially for Maths.

“Although it’s shrouded in secrecy, we believe there is some manipulation of marks because we hear the same thing so many times from so many sources,” shares a teacher who is close to retirement.

This perception is widespread and an examiner describes it as a “trust deficit in the marking system”, despite the involvement of external moderators.

Those who have been examiners for many years see a pattern: the overall quality of the answer scripts has consistently been declining; the questions have been less challenging; and the structure easier to score. In some cases, the more difficult topics have also been removed from the syllabus.

The conclusion: It gets easier to score and harder to fail.

Is it any wonder then that we keep reading of more and more students scoring a string of As and yet the global benchmarking of our students is at the bottom third among 74 countries?

If we’re aiming to achieve top one-third in the benchmarking in 15 years, we cannot afford to deceive ourselves by dumbing down our own exams and the grading of public exams.

“We have Form Four students with an ‘A’ for PMR Maths who can’t even do basic operations. If an ‘A’ is nothing, imagine what a ‘D’ is!’’ says a teacher friend.

A pertinent question is whether our grades are comparable to that of other countries offering qualifications equivalent to O-levels. Is a pass or an “A” in Malaysia the same as that in the UK or Singapore?

A retired education officer from Examinations Syndicate says “yes” to the many doubting Thomases out there and stands by the integrity of the marking and grading of the papers.

He says that examiners’ perception is based on quantitative measures (marks, graphs, etc) while the ministry also takes into consideration qualitative measures (more subjective elements).

“Sample scripts of excellent, average and weak answers are put on a table and examined thoroughly by examiners from Cambridge and examination bodies from other countries,” he shares.

Besides, he adds, it is in the interest of all parties to ensure that a student who applies to study in a British university, for example, has grades that are acceptable regardless of his country of origin.

But there seems to be more ways than one to a decent grade.

Take the instance of the SPM History. Now that it has to be a compulsory pass, an additional Paper 3 has been created as an “open book test”.

Students can bring in their textbooks or any other references; teachers can guide students on themes that will be tested; and students will be informed one month before the exam on the themes to be tested.

One of the objectives of this paper is to prevent a zero score. It’ll now be harder for a student to fail with this potential “bonus” of 20% for paper 3!

Why set ambitious goals if we’re going to create crutches along the way?

Without Paper 3, the failure rate among last year’s candidates was 19.7%.

So what’s in store for a pass in SPM English?

Teachers are already speculating on ways to shore up the scores, considering that a pass has to be achieved in three short years when 70% of our 60,000 English teachers who sat for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test performed poorly.

Teachers are asking whether the oral test would be one avenue to help students meet the passing grade.

Teachers generally feel that three years may be too short a time to effectively bring about the change sought.

While on one hand, students need that push and motivation to work on that compulsory pass, the reality is that their environment remains static over the next three years.

If the family, community and school offer little exposure to the use of the language, how will that effect change?

It is a shame that the progress made with the teaching of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI) was halted with the reversal of the policy.

“PPSMI should have stayed. I could see a real difference in my students,” says an English teacher in a school in Perak.

A new complication to SPM English pass in 2016 is the “school-based assessment”.

With the PMR abolished from next year, students currently in Forms One and Two are being assessed at school. Next year’s Form Three students will sit for centrally set exam but the papers will be graded by their respective schools.

When they reach Form Five in 2016, they will have to pass their SPM English.

The problem is, no one knows yet what percentage of their grade will come from the school-based results, benchmarked at 40% for a pass.

“It’s like asking you to get into the car and drive but only telling you the destination later. Maybe they’ll even tell you to turn back halfway as in the case of PPSMI,” says the teacher-in-the-dark.

With things still unclear, there are concerns that the first batch to face the compulsory pass may be the casualties, especially among rural kids.

Let’s hope the path to be taken will be clearer soon and kinks in the system ironed out. And grades are not lowered to meet cosmetic achievements.

The integrity of the exam and grades awarded must hold us in good stead against international benchmarking, otherwise it will be a mockery of what we set out to achieve.

Note: A few months back, a DAP MP asked the Education Minister to state the passing marks for English, Math and Science subjects. He received a written reply in Parliament that it is under the OSA and cannot be revealed.

  1. #1 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 1:04 pm

    Name:…….Chin Chye Sia……………..

    Q1. — blank — (0 marks)
    Q2. — blank — (0 marks)
    Q3. — blank — (0 marks)
    etc etc etc. blank blank more blanks. All blank. (All 0 marks).

    Result: Pass.

    Reason. Name correctly written (as per IC).

  2. #2 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 1:28 pm

    ///A pertinent question is whether our grades are comparable to that of other countries offering qualifications equivalent to O-levels. Is a pass or an “A” in Malaysia the same as that in the UK or Singapore?///

    Oh come on. Do you really want to know?

    Of course we are better. We have angkasawan. Remember? And isnt that proof enough that our system is superior – far superior?

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 3:58 pm

    What is the use of making English a compulsory pass in SPM in 2016 when the passing mark is so low?

  4. #4 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 4:56 pm

    How much English do you hear spoken in the everyday Malaysian society ? Once you wake up in the morning, you talk to your family members in your own language, dialect; then when you go to work, you speak rojak Malay, English, Mandarin, Iban, Kadazan and others. When you have your tea break and lunch, the makcik selling nasi campur definitely speaks Malay. With this kind of environment you are in, you will use the kind of English only Malaysians known aka Manglish or none at all. Even among learned ones, you don’t speak standard English. Does it help ?

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 6:14 pm

    Honest to god, I don’t know how anyone can send their children to a national school in this country. Its educational genocide.

    • #6 by cemerlang on Thursday, 31 October 2013 - 4:55 pm

      The legend of the boy who sat next to a school just because he did not have the money to go to school. In reality there are others out there in India, in wherever who work in sweat shops and wishing they are in schools. It is about English. Not about where there is a school to go to or not. Can anyone just fly off to Australia to get an education ? Even in outback Australia, you still have radio school. Please. For the love of whatever

  6. #7 by Di Shi Jiu on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 8:26 pm

    I am not really surprised that marks are adjusted to allow a certain percentage of students to pass.

    The Malaysian education system is producing sub-standard results all the way from universities down to primary schools.

    I have no doubt that there are graduates from Malaysian universities who have only have a vague idea of what their degrees are about.

    • #8 by cemerlang on Friday, 1 November 2013 - 12:39 am

      Keep pushing the marks up. Keep finding that needle in the haystack. Thing is the system does not fail anyone that easily. If after all the cocurriculum and the exams and what have you not and you still fail, then what does that make you ? And who wants the boss to see all the reds and yellows ? of course the green is the winner.

  7. #9 by PoliticoKat on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 - 11:33 pm

    Look on the bright side,

    Malaysian don’t need to know how to read or write so long as we have money. We can outsource our work to some foreign company to get it done.

    I think our BN government is already experimenting with this idea of outsourcing the work of an entire department when they outsourced the the National Education Blueprint to McKinsey and Co. It just cost a cheap RM20 million.

    • #10 by cemerlang on Friday, 1 November 2013 - 12:42 am

      cannot read or write is a form of handicap

  8. #11 by Noble House on Thursday, 31 October 2013 - 4:13 am

    Years back, when the New Education Policy (NEP) was being implemented, a very dedicated Malay lady teacher I knew of confronted the state education director with this troubling question in mind: “Is it quantity or quality that matters?” His reply was “quantity” – she resigned!

    The national school education system operates like a planned economy. It’s a bureaucratic system where everybody’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s not a surprise then when a school system doesn’t improve. And Malaysian are the ones paying the price for this bureaucratic failure.

    Is the Education Minister telling our children what that can’t be cured, must be endured?

    • #12 by cemerlang on Friday, 1 November 2013 - 12:59 am

      Would you want your children to scream back at you because they think they are better ? Similarly if the minister is questioned from left to right, right to left by the ordinary people on the streets. it would be better to use all means to make them ” good , unquestioning ” subjects.

  9. #13 by boh-liao on Thursday, 31 October 2013 - 4:58 pm

    Sure the author will NOT b charged under OSA by UmnoB gang aah

  10. #14 by tuahpekkong on Thursday, 31 October 2013 - 5:48 pm

    How to produce good students when the majority (probably over 75%) of our teachers are mediocre themselves. It is not really surprising that passing marks are lowered in order not to reflect too badly on out teachers. The situation is the same at the public Universities. I have met a few local public University graduates who did not even know how to work out hydrostatic pressure. Do you dare to employ them?

  11. #15 by tak tahan on Thursday, 31 October 2013 - 10:33 pm

    can la English or no also,everything like as usual cincai cincai la,tak la apa masalah one,endless possibility mah..who cares ar..boleh la.

You must be logged in to post a comment.