I have written last month on the need for standarised assessments      such as UPSR and PMR  in malaysia. the post was published in my column in Malaysian Insider a well as in this blog. Read here for those who miss it.

2 days ago I attended a round table talk by Sedar, which was attended by educationists  — notable professors from some of the universities, Ministry officials especially from exam board, representatives from teaching unions, retired heads of schools and teachers —  and many concerned public, including many who spoke as parents. The collective opinions of these people will be submitted in a memorandum to the Ministry.

Most spoke against abolishing the examinations, even though most are for revamping them.

I was given 2 minutes to say my piece. I quoted a personal experience.

When I was in Form 3, more than 4 decades ago, we had a good English teacher. This teacher had a private home tuition class. At that time tuition was a luxury that few could ill afford, and there was no tuition mentality among parents and students yet!

Many of us noticed that those who attended his tuition class had very good grades in the school English examinations marked by the same teacher. It could be that his tuition class was so good that even a bad student could become good. But to have this trend consistently and every year meant that there was something funny. In addition, some of those who got high marks by attending his tuition class did not have good command in English in daily lives.

In actual fact, there was this element of personal bias coming into play. The Teacher  was biased and might have subconsciously graded  those in his tuition class higher .

This personal experience, I told the gatherings, goes to illustrate one point. Personal bias will come into play in any form of assessment, be it for awarding scholarship, choosing school prefects, recruiting members into school teams, marking papers s in school examinations, and class evaluations.

We cannot escape this personal bias since we are all human, and we have certain emotions and attachments.

Our culture has not evolved to such a stage where professionalism has minimised personal bias, like in some of the countries such as Finland, and Sweden, where school based assessment is used for the first 12 years of education, and where population at large is homogenous, unlike the multiethnic and multireligiuos society existing in Malaysia.

With our diverse background, personal bias will certainly come into play in any form of school based assessment system.

We therefore need some form of standardisation of assessments of students in the form of unified national examinations like UPSR and PMR, in order to minimise personal bias, whether such bias  is ethnic-based, religious based, or just simply due to personal dislikes of certain aspects of a particular student.

By all means revamp the system; in fact the whole education system needs to be overhauled to produce thinking and innovative students. Get the educationists together, exclude the politicians and revamp the standardised assessment examinations and the whole syllabus. But

To abolish these examinations in haste will only  create more problems which will affect the future of our children as well as our nation.


15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. wisely
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 12:57:54

    I totally agree with ur points but i stress here again that because of these exams teaching in school become very exam orientated and parent are very particular about marks and position esp Chinese with kiasu mindset.

    I personally feel UPSR can give way but PMR should be retain bec

    1. UPSR has not much implication but PMR has bec after PMR we have science, ARTs or vocational stream.

    2. Student can enjoy 6 years of exam free education and teacher has more time and liberties to organise interresting activities for them. Learning can be fun instead of preparing for exam

    REvamp, u didn’t give practical suggestions, u notice? This is revamp, u realise. Of course there are many others.

    One more thing: Autonomy in school as practise by many western school has school based exam as one of its feature too.

    I would like to remind the authority again that we cannot rush into making any decision and then change and change again. many changes happen are due to 3 factors as i can see:

    1. Bad decision from the start. Lack of research done or decision made in hurry.

    2. Good policies but bad inprementation by teachers and administrators make it a bad decision bec the outcome is poor.

    3. Good policies but scrap due to political consideration.


  2. SugarB
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 14:01:37

    Actually I believe people different views because of their own experience. In reality what good is the say the UPSR certificate?

    On the otherhand there is a dearth of professionalism amongst our teachers that you could not trust their dedication to the teaching our children that some kind of public exam is required to ascertain an adequate level have been achieved at a certain point(or points). But even that is a dream because you hear of fiddling in the markings.

    In the end people just feel scorn for the whole system.


  3. A true Malaysian
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 14:47:01

    Why only give you 2 minutes to say your piece? Do those participants know you own a blog here?


  4. pilocarpine
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 18:47:24

    good point, drhsu.

    never abolish a working system that take out bias.

    btw, some action should be taken towards that english teacher.


  5. Dr Hsu
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 18:49:57

    he has long emigrated to another world. May his soul rest in peace!


  6. Dr Hsu
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 18:54:28

    Apart from the 4 main speakers (panelists), all of us were given 2 minutes each. Some of course talked for more than 5 minutes, but i stuck to my time, to let others have time to voice their opinions. The round table was reported in the Sun.


  7. hometuitionjob
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 21:50:08

    your article reminded me of my (still living) art teacher. if we don’t attend his external tuition class, we won’t get good mark in Art subject. I know that he purposely failed my brother’s friend who scored straight As in SPR, but got bad mark for Art. Just because the boy attended his rival’s tuition class.

    Luckily, I’m the first batch of PMR and that year, the education ministry changed the compulsory subject and Art is no longer required. What a great relief!


  8. klm
    Jul 24, 2010 @ 23:48:21

    Will the memo sit on someone’s cupboard in the ministry with all the others memos submitted? Since when have the ministry listen to the public?


  9. BabaNyonya
    Jul 25, 2010 @ 02:01:23

    From recent Economist magazine:

    “FIFTY years ago Egypt looked oddly similar to another country. It had nearly the same population which was growing similarly fast, the same low income per person, the same proportion of relatively few city dwellers to lots of peasants working tiny plots, and similar life expectancy. ….. Both were run by quasi-dictators, complete with strict censorship and a pervasive secret police.”

    “Egypt has made a lot of progress since then, particularly in recent years. But the other country, South Korea, has developed far faster. It has become a leading industrial power, a technological innovator and a vibrant democracy. Its people are now five times richer than Egypt’s (at purchasing-power parity against the dollar; at prevailing exchange rates the gap is far bigger), and on average live nearly ten years longer. The only measure on which South Korea lags behind is population growth. Whereas it had around 25m people in 1960 and now has double that number, Egypt’s population has nearly tripled.

    “back in the 1960s Egypt’s ultimately wasteful experiments with nationalised industries and state planning were widely applauded. Plenty of Egyptians remain nostalgic for the years under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, when toilet paper and soap were scarce but the shiny new state-run factories providing jobs for life had not yet rusted and Egypt held its head high in regional affairs.”

    “In South Korea the number of children born per woman was falling fast. Population growth was slowing, propelling the country into a happy phase known as the demographic transition, when the population pyramid begins to shrink at the base and widen in the middle, causing a bulge in the working-age population and a relative decline in the number of dependants.”

    “South Korea and Egypt differ in another important respect. Fifty years ago, when South Korea’s adult literacy rate was already 71%, Egypt’s trailed at a dismal 25%. With 72% now, Egypt has only just passed South Korea’s level of 1960. That has had serious repercussions. According to a government-commissioned study, one reason why poverty has endured, despite Egypt’s rapid growth, is that too few people have the skills to exploit the opportunities available to them. Egyptian businessmen complain that a shortage of talented workers is one of the biggest obstacles to growth, second only to obstructive bureaucracy. Lawyers fume that it is not just too many laws and too few courts that tangle justice, but clueless judges and incompetent clerks.”

    “It is not merely a question of literacy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Egypt’s high rate of traffic accidents, for instance, may be largely due to ignorance of basic rules. High fatality rates in hospitals reflect poor standards of training, accountability and hygiene. A 2008 study of public awareness of AIDS revealed that only 1.8% of women among the poorest fifth of Egyptians, and less than 16% among the richest, knew the basic facts of the disease. Men were better informed, but even so less than 30% of the wealthiest class were aware, for example, that someone might be HIV-positive yet look healthy.”

    “A government survey this year found that, apart from school textbooks, 88% of Egyptian households read no books, and three-quarters of families do not read any newspapers or magazines either. Of those who do read, 79% concentrate on religious subjects. Perhaps more encouragingly, the study found that nearly three-quarters of youths aged 15-29 have used the internet, and almost half of them have read books on the web. But again, religious fare was the favourite subject, followed by sport, and only distantly by scientific subjects. Other surveys have found far lower levels of internet use.”

    Egypt’s failure to educate its people is not due to lack of effort. The country’s first modern schools opened in the early 19th century, far earlier than in most of the region. Free public primary education was introduced in the 1940s, but not widely available until after the 1952 revolution. In the following quarter-century university enrolment increased by more than ten times. The number of primary schools doubled, the number of students quadrupled and public spending on education swelled from 3% to 4% of GDP, a respectable figure by world standards.

    “Yet something went wrong. Before the revolution Egypt’s schools and universities were few but their standard was excellent. The push to boost numbers came at the cost of a drastic fall in quality. Instead of following tested Western models, school textbooks were rewritten to emphasise “nationalist values”, scientific formulas and lists of facts rather than critical thinking. By the 1980s class sizes in government schools averaged more than 60. With student numbers in several big state universities up to six-digit figures, hundreds, even thousands of students were packed into lecture halls. Some of the better staff emigrated to Gulf countries, where salaries were many times higher.”

    Those left behind began to exploit an obvious market opportunity, offering private lessons on the side. This practice became so pervasive that by 2005 some 64% of urban students and 54% of rural ones resorted to private crammers in addition to regular schooling, according to Egypt’s Human Development Report. A 2002 World Bank study found that private tuition accounted for fully 1.6% of GDP, and other studies suggest it devours a whopping 20% of household spending in families with school-age children. A big reason why families are willing to spend so much is that the education system relies heavily on national exams, not only for rating students but also for placing them in the various faculties of the state universities that still account for 95% of college enrolment.

    “Since the 1960s these have been ranked by prestige, with medicine and engineering accepting only the highest-scoring students. The humanities, including law and education, are left with the dross. In effect, this creates a tyranny of exams largely based on rote learning. It forces unhappy students into disciplines they would not have chosen for themselves and produces a chronic imbalance between the skills of graduates and the needs of the marketplace. Egypt has a surplus of would-be lawyers, slapdash engineers and scarcely numerate accountants but few trained librarians, architects or actuaries.”

    Sound familiar? They could be talking about Malaysia vs Singapore. Like our former PM, the ’60s Egyptian leader Gamel Nasser also talked big on the world stage and built mega-projects like Aswan Dam. But the above is his true legacy.

    Unfortunately, too many Malays continue to look up to the Arab countries, following everything they do from dress code to Islamic universities. At least, with his Look East policy Mahathir did understand the correct model even though he never followed through.


  10. Dr Hsu
    Jul 25, 2010 @ 13:48:31

    That is why a standardised assessment rather than a local based assessment is needed.

    There is another fear. We want politicians out of schools. But with school based assessments, we are opening the door for local warlords to barge into the school and demand that his supporters children be given good grades. How many headmasters can stand up to these war lords?

    Warlords have influenced other institutions and compromised them. We do not want them to compromise the schools too.

    I am all for school based assessments if our society has reached the stage of New Zealand or Finland or Sweden.


  11. Dr Hsu
    Jul 25, 2010 @ 13:52:31


    Thanks for the enlightening article from the economist. I think this article deserves to be a post, instead of a commnet.


  12. BabaNyonya
    Jul 25, 2010 @ 22:36:08

    Egypt is obviously not a center of educational excellence. So why does the govt have such high regard for their universities? – see this article:

    According to the article, 7000 out of the 28,000 students at Al Azhar university in Cairo are from M’sia or Indonesia, no doubt sent with public funds. There they will get degrees in Islamic studies and many will return to swell the pool of unemployable graduates. The govt think so highly of Al Azhar they’re going to open a branch in Rembau.

    They should be sending students to Seoul instead to learn how Samsung and Hyundai work.

    Like Mahathir, Gamel Nasser, Egypt’s president in the 60s, was renowned worldwide as a champion of the 3rd world against the West. He built mega-projects like steelworks and the Aswan Dam (you can google it) on the river Nile, one of the biggest engineering feats of its day. For this, Egypt was admired by other developing countries and he boasted that Egypt would soon join the developed nations. He made bellicose speeches against western countries and the Jews (until the Israelis kicked his ass in the 6 day war – you can google that too). He stifled dissent at home and locked up his opponents.

    Nasser died 40 years ago. Today, Egypt is not a leader in anything and is still undeveloped. In fact, its GDP per head is $6000, while Malaysia’s is $13,000, S. Korea’s is $28,000 and Singapore’s is $40,000.


  13. kl_boy
    Jul 26, 2010 @ 02:41:08

    Sad comparison indeed. I have Egytians in my course work and after asking them about this, they nodded sadly about this as well. To top it off, they have deal with the rising Islamic fanatism as well. IMHO, The Palestine issue and the US support of Mubarak’s govt is also a barrier towards any chance of cleaning up the country’s social landscape as it has been like this for generations !


  14. hometuition101
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 23:58:02

    Hi I hope im not too late. haha, found your article by accident. But what i want to say is that there are teachers who are really biased out there. Everywhere. In fact this does not only happen in schools. When i was in Form 2 , for some reason my BM teacher hated my whole class, I remember very clearly that i got 70 marks for the first term then failed for the rest of the year (only10 students passed out of 50, and i am not exaggerating). When i went to form 3, my marks went back to 70. So its quite obvious what is happening!


  15. hometuitionmalaysia
    May 05, 2013 @ 19:02:14

    Though I comment after few years you have posted, I still have the same perception. I have been teaching in private colleges for 7 years, where most of our students are from the National Curriculum. I personally felt that our country still has a long way to go to be an independent entity of itself, without other elements of political influence. Results of the same grade has been of deteriorating quality year by year, through monitoring the students’ performance, ability of rationalizing and reasoning. Exam-based style learning has made many learn through rote learning, and has difficulties to explain when they are questioned ‘why’.

    If we move on to have local-based assessment, I am afraid there will be even more difficult for us to gauge the standard of a student due to the many influence and factors that may affect the grading of the assessment. This system needs intensive planning and clear strategies before it can be implemented. Constant monitoring and moderation of school’s assessment etc, needs to be planned out.

    At this moment, the country is not yet ready. However, hopefully in the near future, education will serve its whole purpose of itself.


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