Exams or assessments?

AS a parent who has been diligent in mentoring her children at home, and who also has the experience of seeing them through the national schooling system for both the primary and secondary levels, I would like to give my two cents’ worth concerning the exam versus assessment methods.

I was among those who cheered when exams for the primary school level were abolished for Years One, Two and Three pupils in 2019. Exams, as were carried out in national schools, were a barrier to the joys of learning. My daughter was then in Year Three in a national school and the change started with her batch.

But replacing the exams with an assessment method did not tell me what my daughter was really capable of. There was a lengthy standardised description for each band given to explain what the child was supposed to have accomplished.

Teachers graded the children into a particular band based on the children’s performance in class and the teachers’ opinions. But there were many times when my daughter had never even learnt some of the skills stated in the band she was given. Nor did we always agree with the teacher’s assessment of her mastery of a subject.

Three years on, when the Education Ministry felt that some form of exam-like assessment was needed at the school level to gauge schoolchildren’s academic performance, especially after the Covid-19 lockdowns and disrupted learning, pupils no longer knew how to sit for a test.

They would ask the teacher for answers during a test, and some teachers would even allow them to refer to the textbook for answers. My daughter herself did not have the skills or discipline needed to memorise facts or utilise what she was supposed to have been taught in class to answer questions.

We only heard somewhere in the middle of last year that in January 2023, pupils were required to sit for a nationwide school-based assessment. The ministry prepared several sets of questions per subject and schools chose the set they wanted. The format of each subject was only revealed to teachers and pupils alike through DidikTV on YouTube in December 2022. Teachers then scrambled to prepare their pupils for the assessment according to the new format. Because of the lack of emphasis on pupils needing to sit for exams, some teachers and also the school management had equated that with having lots of celebrations, and ceramahs, and a lack of seriousness in academic matters.

Of course, this may differ from school to school. I’ve heard that Chinese vernacular schools, particularly, still hold monthly tests despite the abolishment of exams in national schools.

I contrast my daughter’s situation with her brother’s. During his year in 2021, the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) was abolished but besides that, he had never gone through a school year without having exams.

Hence, he has maintained the mentality of needing to cram for an exam. He is also aware of the need to master the method of answering questions according to how the system wants it. When he gets an answer wrong, it is often not that he doesn’t understand the subject matter. In fact, he can expound to me on why his answer is what it is. But he just has not put it the “correct way” as per the marking scheme.

Ever since the Form Three Assessment (PT3) was abolished in 2021, his school has still been conducting exams but his marks were translated into the band system, and he was given the standardised description which, in my opinion, is just a lot of hot air.

The only way I can tell which part of the subject he has mastered and which he hasn’t is by going through his exam paper with him. But I am at ease that he understands what is required of him in an exam and is more likely to be prepared for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as compared to his sister.Why assessments don’t work

Firstly, our teachers were trained on an exam-based schooling system. Having no exams just means that the pressure for the students to perform, and for the teachers to prepare them to perform, is taken away. Teachers do not have the mentality of hands-on learning, or learning through play.

They still largely rely on the rote learning method. And for rote learning to be effective, there must be adequate compensation for the effort because rote learning is dull by nature. Achieving good exam results used to be that compensation but it has been taken away, and assessments do not compensate a student for putting more effort than the next student who does worse but is still in the same band.

Secondly, the environment for a teacher-based assessment is not there. An average schoolteacher has 30 to 40 students in a class to monitor. The teacher may only teach that class for a few hours a week. He or she has several other classes of different levels, as well as a pile of non-essential paperwork to see to. The teacher will thus not be able to really gauge the learning levels of individual students or provide critical feedback to their parents.

Road ahead

If the ministry wants to maintain its current method of assessment in schools, many changes need to be made.

The prerogative to decide on the changes cannot belong to only the ministry; it must belong to the stakeholders. A one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best formula for Malaysia’s plural society.

Plans cannot be short-term because education starts from the moment the child is born. Parents need to know what lies ahead so that they can prepare their children for it.

The ministry must provide sufficient training for teachers, school administrators, content creators and parents. It must restructure the way schools are run, its expectations, and the entire schooling ecosystem.



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education , assessments , abolish exams , UPST PT3 , SPM


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