THE idea of abolishing the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) exams shouldn’t have taken us by surprise when Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced it in June 2010.
Those who follow developments in the Education Ministry might recall that plans to have school-based assessments instead of centralised exams have been on the cards since the last parliamentary term. The National Education Blueprint 2006-2010 had talked about moving in that direction. There was already the idea that the public school system should be made less exam-oriented for students, and abolishing the UPSR and PMR were proposals that were discussed even then.
Still, public opinion is only now being solicited. And what has emerged is that revamping the education system is far more complex than the government’s oversimplified suggestion to either do away with or retain the UPSR and the PMR. The question, then, that needs to be answered is, is the government up to the challenge of such a complex task of national importance?
Framing the issue correctly
What is emerging from public discussions is that the ministry’s proposal is not just black or white. From the two ministry-sponsored roundtables so far and other roundtables and numerous letters to the media, many more questions need to be answered. If abolition is seen as a yes/no issue, the overall feedback then appears largely in favour of retaining the exams. However, is this the best way to frame the issue?
Here are some views and questions collated from various forums such as news reports about the ministry’s roundtables, dialogues organised by other groups like the MCA and Gerakan, and letters to the media:
- There is not enough research or empirical data to justify such a move.
- Public exams are still needed for uniformity in assessing students.
- PMR should be abolished, but UPSR retained.
- If PMR is abolished, how would this affect the streaming of students in Form Four?
- UPSR should be retained but moved earlier to Standard 5. Year Six should be a “remedial” year for pupils who did poorly in the UPSR to prepare them for secondary school. As such, remove classes for vernacular school students should also be stopped.
- Drop non-core subjects like civic and moral education, and Religious Studies from being counted in exam results. Let these be “pass/fail” subjects. Or take these out of formal education altogether and leave them to be taught by religious bodies and parents.
- Instead of abolishing the exams, review the way exam questions are asked. Test students on knowledge and reasoning, rather than memorisation of facts. Currently, Malaysian exams are focused on the “lowest order of thinking”, which is dependent on rote learning.
- Also review the number of subjects, and which ones students should be tested on.
- Retain centralised exams but revamp them and have a balance between public exams and school-based tests to assess students holistically. Exams currently test only the academic component of students’ multiple intelligences, but not their other abilities.
- The issue is not centralised exams or school-based testing. The issue is the quality of teachers to begin with.
- It is not centralised exams that promote an exam-orientated culture of rote learning. It is the monthly, term, trial and yearly school exams that are giving students undue pressure. The number of these additional exams throughout the year should be reduced.
- Instead of scrapping exams, it is teaching and learning methods that should be changed to promote experiential learning, understanding, creativity and critical thinking.
- If centralised exams are replaced with school-based assessment, can teachers be trusted to set aside their personal, religious or racial bias when grading students?
- With school-based assessments, teachers will need to be trained to design and conduct such assessments. Will the training be adequate, or will some teachers still struggle as many did despite being trained to teach Mathematics and Science in English?
- Could a test, or pilot project, of how school-based assessments would work be held first before a final decision is made?
- What will the impact of abolishing UPSR and PMR be on students in poorer, rural schools? How will it impact the urban-rural divide?
- Public education should be revamped to cater to the majority of students who are rural based and underperformers. Currently, teachers tend to focus on students whom they feel will score As to boost school performance.
- A comprehensive, long-term policy or at least a 20-year education policy is needed, and must include improving teachers’ quality and welfare.
Despite the question of abolishing exams clearly being a complex issue, Muhyiddin, who is also the education minister, says the government will make a decision about the matter in September. At the same time, the ministry already has a detailed plan on how school-based assessments are to be conducted in place of UPSR and PMR.
Courage to decentralise education
September is a month away, and given the above concerns, one wonders how the Education Ministry will respond. Will it clarify the uncertainties? Will it come back with a proposal for more public feedback? Will it conduct a pilot case study on school-based assessments? Or will it ram through a final decision?
Ultimately, exams are a necessary evil. And doing away with them doesn’t address other overarching concerns about the education system as listed above.
If, as Muhyiddin said, the reason for abolishing public exams is to make the education system less exam-oriented and more holistic, then the focus should be on changing teaching and learning methods. Substituting centralised exams with school-based testing while doing nothing to improve teacher and teaching quality doesn’t guarantee that public education will be any less exam-oriented or more holistic.
If time, money and effort will have to be invested in training teachers to handle school-based assessments, wouldn’t the same investment be better spent on a thorough revamp of the education system? Changing the nature of public exams along with reviewing the curriculum and improving teacher quality and teaching methods can be a place to start.
It would be heartening if after all the feedback, the government would have the courage to re-consult all stakeholders on what should be done next. Even if it means abandoning the question of “abolish or not” and rephrasing it to address the concerns that have been raised. It would be a start to de-politicising education and placing it in the hands of stakeholders.
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