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Its Not Just About Abolishing Exams

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By LIM MUN FAH Translated by SOONG PHUI JEE Since I am probably the only columnist here who sat the UPSR and PMR in the last decade, I think it behoves me to chip in my dua sen regarding the governments proposal to abolish these exams: I dont really care. Not that I do not have a strong opinion on our school system; I do. But it does not matter whether we abolish these exams. What we need is strong evidence-based decision-making, and a clear plan of attack. The present educational policy lacks both, and as far as Im concerned, any conclusion it reaches will be a failure as long as these two things are not met. The government says it is interested in abolishing these exams because it wants to reduce the exam-orientation of our education system. That is well and good. But what evidence is there that abolishing these exams will make our exam-centric culture of education go away? The first problem is that there is no such evidence, to my knowledge. Introducing new policies without any evidence in their support is fairly common. What studies were cited when we first argued over the introduction of teaching Maths and Science in English (PPSMI)? To my knowledge, there was no such empirical research at least none relevant to Malaysia. Likewise, when the government abolished PPSMI, what studies could they cite? None that I heard of. The second problem is that at least in my experience there is an entrenched culture of focusing on exams at school. We may take away the exams, but there is still a national curriculum which each school will teach and set exam questions

from. Parents will still stress about grades, and teachers will probably still teach to the test. There might be no UPSR, but there will still be a Year Six final exam. It is extremely irresponsible of the government to simply change its mind about one policy or another at the flip of a coin, with no empirical evidence either way. When PPSMI was introduced, no pilot study was done overnight, millions of students, teachers and parents lives changed. When PPSMI ended, again, overnight, millions of lives were affected. How can the government be so callous and act on no evidence? Worse than that, the governments policies actually stifle the production of such evidence. Looking through journals, most studies I can find pertaining to our education system were conducted by scholars studying abroad. I personally know plenty of people who have studied our education system none are interested in making their work public because they fear political repercussions. The irony of it all is that higher education and academia cannot function without this freedom to conduct and publish research. Because repressive laws like the Universities and University Colleges Act and other policies stifle research, we have nothing to look at when formulating policy decisions. And the government is not interested in cultivating this research it just likes changing its mind at the slightest whim. This is what I mean when I say we need a broad strategic plan. Our education system is a mess, and I could talk forever about the problems we need to fix. But most of these problems are intertwined with one another, and you cant fix one unless you plan to fix them all. For example, if you want to fight a mindless orientation around examinations, you need to retrain the teachers. You need them to understand the skills we want to impart, and how to teach these skills, so they dont just set exams which can be studied for by rote. You need to look at the curriculum and how it structures the material. Is the structure more conducive to critical thinking and application in daily life, or is it just oriented around sitting for a handful of exams? Simply abolishing the UPSR and PMR without doing any of this is a waste of time.

And to accomplish any of this, you need to see what works. You need to try a bunch of different approaches in pilot studies, and examine the results. How do the teachers fare, depending on the kind of training they have? How do the students fare? We cannot know any of this unless we have a culture that promotes research to begin with and as you can see, the problem of education has already looped back on itself. I am not going to definitively say we should or should not abolish the UPSR and PMR. Frankly, I found both exams a waste of my time, and I didnt study very hard for either of them. Form Three was so ridiculously focused on simply prepping us for the exam that I gave up on school altogether. But there is room for exams in a healthy education system, and if we revamp our curriculum, help our teachers with the skills they need, and set the proper questions, I see no reason why we cant succeed while keeping these exams. The more important thing is systemic reform. The government should stop playing dice with peoples lives, and stop making blind decisions that upend millions of households. The government has to make policy on the basis of evidence, not whims, and it has to make policy as part of a strategic plan. Theres been more than enough tinkering here and there without the fortitude and discipline to pursue a grander scheme. Ive lived through the failure of PPSMI I was among the first cohort to undergo it and it epitomises all these problems Ive just outlined. Whatever decision we make on the UPSR and PMR, lets make it on the basis of facts, not whims, and with the guts to see through a larger plan that fixes the system, not a tiny piece of it. . SinChew Daily