January 22nd, 2016

No need to change the exam's structure

THE Education Ministry is contemplating changing the Primary School Evaluation Test (UPSR) into a “60 per cent centralised and 40 per cent school-based assessment” public examination.

The ministry is in the process of soliciting feedback from stakeholders before a final decision is made in one or two years’ time. The UPSR remains the only public exam in our primary school system.

UPSR results are indicators of the level of competency or mastery of the subjects examined, as achieved by each candidate. Its results are used generally as criteria for selection and admission of pupils into residential secondary schools and also for primary school achievement awards.

There is still room for improvement in UPSR’s quality and content of questions set but not to totally reformat and reconstitute it.
Like public exams in many other countries, the UPSR should be a valid and reliable exam, besides being discreetly objective and of good standard and quality.

Elements of subjectivity should be reduced to the minimum, if not eliminated.

This helps establish esteem and inspire confidence in the exam. It is said that a 100 per cent centralised assessment was too stringent and imparted unnecessarily tremendous pressures upon pupils.

A proper understanding of the purposes of the exam is necessary here. An examination is about applying what one has learnt and understood well.

Pupils should be in school primarily to learn to acquire new knowledge, not just to study in order to pass exams with high grades. If “learning to understand” has been well taught and assimilated, the grades will take care of themselves.

Any responsible and diligent pupil should be able to pass any subject in UPSR with reasonably good grade.

The more gifted ones would even excel with a string of As. Also, learning should be done in small and incremental doses, for new knowledge builds on earlier learnt knowledge.

Pressure comes when pupils try to squeeze too much learning in a short period or at the last-minute, or attempt to memorise lessons they have not fully understood.

The Form Three Assessment (PT3) system is going for a mix of centralised and school-based assessments. So, some might argue, why not the UPSR? PT3 is a “mid-term” assessment exam, that is, halfway through secondary school years.

Thus, the assessment can be very much school-based in order that teachers can continue to guide their pupils individually or in groups, according to the assessment results.

But in comparison, the UPSR is held at the completion of the primary school phase of a child’s education. It is a symbolic milestone.

Pupils move on to secondary school after this to begin a new learning experience with a new set of teachers and classmates, and in a new school environment.

Pupils and their parents alike want an objective evaluation of their competency and mastery of subjects learnt in the primary school years.

True and unbiased information is vital and essential for planning their next course of learning and study. Do not get me wrong. I am for school-based assessment, albeit cautiously.

By all means, train and encourage teachers to be proficient in conducting school-based assessments. But let school-based assessments be confined to individual schools, respectively.

A national-level exam should not be tempered with uncertainty or queries, such as non-uniform marking practices, inherent human biases or favouritism and doubtful random grading of pupils’ subjective answers or responses to questions asked.

Let’s look at an example. America has a very liberal approach to education. Within a broad curriculum that has gained consensus, schools are free to teach what they want to teach, and how and when they want to teach them.

School-based assessments are certainly the norm there. Yet, by the end of their high school years, their students opt to sit for the common SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) College Admission Exam, which is also sought after and sat by students all over the world.

The students’ performances in these tests determine to a large extent their chances to enter the universities or colleges of their choice. SAT is internationally recognised for its high standard, quality and objectivity.

Incidentally, do we measure an athlete’s or a sportsman/sportswoman’s performance by giving 60 per cent weightage to his/her performance on the day of competition and 40 per cent weightage to his/her coach-based assessments throughout his/her training sessions?

You would say this is a bad suggestion. It is performance on the competition day that counts. An athlete worth his/her salt will have to prepare  himself/herself well and rises up to the occasion to be counted.

This is how it should be done, and this is what high standard and quality is all about. Nobody has ever complained about this practice.

So, why should it be different in academic or scholarship pursuits? The UPSR has served us well since its inception. True, there is room for improvement in the quality and content of questions set.

But why is there the need to reformat and reconstitute the whole exam structure? As the saying goes, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!”