The new school-based system to gauge students should be fully adopted as the positive outcomes are immense.
Suara Guru-Masyarakat Malaysia (SGMM) ( an ad-hoc group of teachers) has said that government schools are increasingly turning their backs on School-Based Assessment (SBA).
SGMM has said that teachers are finding it hard to implement the SBA to track student performance and are again gauging them through examinations.
This has apparently resulted in a situation where a large number of schools operate a dual system to student assessment.
Schools, according to the group, pay lip service to SBA to “please officials in Putrajaya” but in the background, they continue with the old exam system — developing and administering their own tests or exams.
Implementing this dual system is increasing the workload of teachers who are using the data from internal examinations to gauge student performance and stream students into “the right classes”.
The fact that many schools are apparently adopting a dual system (SBA and exams) is of seriously concern and there are three options for the Education Ministry.
The first option is turn a blind eye to the dual system and allow schools to “pay lip service to SBA”, whilst they continue with exams.
The second option is to sound the retreat horn which is to admit defeat and withdraw SBA and endorse the schools’ continued system of exams.
Supporting the school system to make an effective transition to SBA, is the third option.
The first option seems to please everyone but resources are spread so thinly that it ends up pleasing no one, and achieves a scant return on investment.
The second option seems to go against the principles of successful education reform which means that the third option is perhaps the best.
What we have to question is the point of assessment in the first place?
Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment has identified almost 80 different reasons why school systems assess students.
However, of the many reasons, the two most important are for formative and summative purposes.
Formative Assessment is about giving students feedback so that they know the areas in which they are doing well, and areas that they could be doing better.
It helps teachers plan their lessons so that they can plan what they teach and cater to the diverse needs of students.
This is called the Assessment for Learning and it is at the heart of the SBA paradigm.
Research by scholars like Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Paul Black and others suggest that Assessment for Learning is the most powerful education game in town.
Getting students to understand how to improve by giving clear and actionable feedback has resulted in gains.
The student achievements are amongst the largest ever reported for education interventions.
A CfBT Education Malaysia research which will be published as part of its 35th Anniversary Research Series, shows that good quality student feedback is actually far more important than receiving a grade.
(CfBT Education Malaysia is one of the country’s established education consultancies and its mission is to advance education for public benefit.)
Students who are given comment-only feedback and no score/grade on their work, learn much more.
The problem with grading is that students fixate on their score and don’t properly digest feedback from teachers on how to improve.
And the problem with exams is that they bear no real relationship to the types of skills that students need in the real world.
Summative Assessment, on the other hand, is about giving students a government-backed exam certificate with a set of grades such as the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR), Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR), Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM), which they can present to a university or a prospective employer.
The certificate provides evidence that they can read and write up to a certain level, undertake routine or complex mathematical calculations among their other academic abilities.
Because summative assessment has high stakes and affects students in many high performing education systems, it is administered through controlled examinations in the last year of secondary school. This is Assessment of Learning.
So, formative assessment is the “holy grail” of student achievement while summative assessment is a “necessary evil”, but one that should be used sparingly.
Everyone needs a school-leavers’ certificate but they only really need to go through the process once — when they leave school.
The issue that the Education Ministry confronted in 2009/10 was that too much of the assessment that was taking place in schools was summative. It was about acquiring grades for UPSR, PMR and SPM.
Much of the teaching time was spent on preparing students to sit for these examinations and with government-endorsed slips of paper (certificates) being issued to 12- and 15-year-olds, well before they needed to make the transition to higher education or employment.
By contrast, many high performing education systems have come to the conclusion that having multiple “high stakes” examinations like UPSR, PMR and SPM is seriously counter-productive to student achievement.
It leads to a teaching culture that narrows the curriculum to the areas likely to be tested and teaching to the test.
Each episode of such testings can actually result in a lost year, as teachers and students busily rehearse for the questions that are likely to be encountered in the exam.
In Malaysia, such testings have cumulatively resulted in three lost years for each of the nation’s students.
The evidence also tells us that constant examinations and grading is incredibly demotivating to students: they learn because of the extrinsic motivation of achieving a grade rather than the intrinsic motivation of acquiring mastery.
It is like paying a child to clean his room, instead of the child wanting to do so because he likes sleeping in a clean environment.
In the face of the overwhelming evidence, it makes complete sense that the ministry is pushing schools towards SBA.
It is also understandable that schools are resisting the move because old habits die hard. Malaysian teachers are themselves the product of an exam-driven system as are parents.
For teachers the change to SBA is scary and a complete paradigm shift: North is now South and East now West.
The key to successful implementation of SBA is habit change and the ministry needs to change its old ways.
If there is no focus on what teachers actually do in the classroom, then the curriculum and assessment changes will have little impact.
The lesson for the ministry is that the “one-shot” reform does not work. It takes time for teachers to get their heads around the idea that the compass has been flipped and to see this entire exercise as a good thing.
The solution is gradual reform and the establishment of teacher learning communities, each with regular sessions for between eight to 10 educators. The sessions must focus specifically on undoing old habits — a kind of mediated self-help group for teachers.
DR ARRAN HAMILTON is Director of CfBT Education Malaysia, a not-for-profit organisation which in turn is part of CfBT Education Trust, the world’s leading not-for-profit education consultancy. The STAR Home News education 03/02/2014