Contradictheory: Kids mean more than an exam

School assessment should be more about taking stock and future improvement not the result of a single paper or even of an entire exam. Photo: Bernama

THERE was a story recently of a kid who got RM10,000 from his parents for scoring 5As (and 1B) in his Standard Six UPSR exam (online at mStar). If you know me, then you’ll probably guess that I think this is a bad idea. It’s going to colour his idea of what doing exams are for, and by the time he gets to the SPM exam, he’ll probably argue it’s worth at least 10 times that.

But the big picture is that exam grades matter. Grades are what universities look at when deciding if somebody should be allowed to take a course. If you’re not already at a certain standard (especially in something as precise as Maths, which I did in university), then it makes the rest of the journey much harder. In short, good grades allow for good opportunities for good careers.

Except maybe not so much this year. Many who took the 2019 SPM Additional Mathematics paper reported that it was extremely difficult, with some allegedly leaving the examination hall in tears.

People were so worried that their kids' predicted grades were at risk (and presumably their chances of getting into their university of choice) that they jumped online to sign a petition to lower the marks required to achieve these grades.

Teachers even agreed the questions were difficult. I got a copy of the papers, and have to reluctantly agree, since there was one question that I wasn’t able to do at all. (For the curious, it was question five of Paper One about statistics. Which both makes sense and is ironic at the same time, because statistics was one of the options I skipped in university, yet I also frequently make use of them when writing this column.) But just because I couldn’t do it doesn’t mean it was unfair, or even that it was hard. It’s just a gap in my ability.

One question that many found difficult was about a four-digit code, and how many possible combinations could I have if I don’t allow combinations that have a one immediately followed by a three in them. Now, initially, I thought this was a tricky question. Normally, if you have these types of counting questions, you sort of multiply one number by another. But if you try to do this with the safe question, you get into trouble very quickly because of the many different cases to consider.

However, if you’re able to stay calm and just count – literally list down – the combinations that are not allowed, making sure you don’t double count, and then subtract that number from the total number of combinations, you get the answer. It barely takes a minute, and it’s something even a nine-year-old could probably do.

The other questions that I understand gave students trouble were ones where equations had to be solved in general, rather than with a specific numeric solution (so an answer would look like “5a+b” instead of “15”). I would agree it’s tricky if you’re not used to it, but it’s fundamentally the same working, except using letters instead of numbers.

Despite these hard questions, I believe the paper still gave plenty of opportunity for exam takers to show they can do maths. There were some amazingly easy questions – in my opinion, too straightforward. And while parts of the paper were hard, I believe it would have been equally hard for everybody.

In fact, great students prefer hard papers because it’s easier to show you can rise to the top. Bring it on, as they say.

Despite this, I believe the complaints the exam was “too hard” still are valid. The reality is that if you are a student who dropped from an A to a B, then you stand a real risk of losing your place in university. Yet, I would say the problem isn’t in the student himself, but in the way exams have become a do-or-die mission.

Many years ago (about 20), I listened to the experts in the Education Ministry’s examination syndicate talk about what a good assessment looks like. For example, it’s not about failing people who can’t answer questions; it’s about letting them show what they’re capable of doing and showing the way for those who haven’t quite made the grade to prove themselves later (

Instead of just a single exam at the end of one (or several!) years, you would have continuous assessment. And not necessarily tests, but more a multitude of ways to demonstrate your ability. You would get tasks from an item bank and try to complete them, and the teacher would observe not only if you got the answer right but also how you went about it. And every failure would be an opportunity for the teacher to guide the student to the next thing to learn.

Despite knowing all this back then, we’ve never really implemented it properly. Part of the reason is that it’s actually much easier to assess students by setting tests with right and wrong answers, and tying everything up in one neat grade. On the other hand, proper continuous assessment needs teachers who are skilled enough to observe students as they work and make more subjective judgements about what they should do next.

Also – as I was told then by a colleague – parents actually like a system where you can send your kids to tutorial centres that will help them to churn out a grade. It seems so much more concrete.

Obviously, no paper can be worth RM2,000 (the math here is the boy’s RM10,000 gift divided by his 5As) if only because the value of a person is so clearly beyond the result of a single exam.

It’s like how a painting shouldn’t be judged by a single dot. It’s not even about the picture as a whole at a single point in time. Assessment should be more about taking stock and future improvement – a representation of a person in flux, always trying to find the right combination of colours to create the best picture possible.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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