Published in The Edge Malaysia, 5 - 11 January 2015.
In principle, I am all in favor of decentralization. I think far too much is centralized in Malaysia, and that includes examinations. The new Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3 (“PT3”) is meant to move away from that, decentralizing the administering of Form Three examinations at the school level, away from the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (“PMR”). The results of the PT3 were released recently to a ton of uproar. Students and parents have written in to media outlets, Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan has released statements defending the PTW and opinionated members of society (this column included) have all voiced their thoughts about students being whiny, Malaysia not being ready for critical thinking-based examinations and the many difficulties that come with employing school-based assessments that are treated as statistically equivalent (in terms of applying to charter schools and the like) across the nation.
This opinionated member of society thinks everyone needs to calm down about the PT3. There are, as I see it, three key stakeholders and one indirect stakeholder. The three key stakeholders are students, parents, and public education personnel. The indirect stakeholder is civil society, especially those who care about our education system and what it means for developing the future Malaysian human capital base. I will address each in turn.
First, the indirect stakeholder. I would urge you, first and foremost, to quit labeling these students – students who are just 15 and the PT3 could very well be the biggest thing in their life at the moment – as whiny spoiled kids. If, at some point of your life, a set of examinations, be it the PT3 or SPM or even the UPSR (back in the day) was not the biggest focal point of your life, you are kidding yourself. Cut these students a break; they worked really hard against entirely new circumstances with nationally inconsistent preparation towards a new learning goal that has been counter to nearly all rote-memorization-based examinations in prior years. That they are disappointed with their results and require a place to vent is perfectly understandable. Next, to those who suggest that Malaysia is not ready for critical thinking-based examinations. I think this a slightly more valid concern, but only slightly. I do agree that is a lot of historical cultural persistence in the way that Malaysia as a whole sees examinations and that there is much to do to build a cultural foundation upon which an education system based on critical thinking can thrive. Where I would strongly disagree is that this implies a shift back towards structured, centralized, memorization-based PMR examinations. I think, and I shall elaborate on this further later on, that we need to work harder and break down barriers to examination perception in Malaysia rather than abandon the PT3 after just one year.
Second, the parents. I understand that the concerns that parents have about the PT3 examination results and the choices that the results open or close for their children moving forward. I think they need to calm down as well. First of all, it has likely been about 30 years since the parents of the current generations of PT3 students took their PMR or Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (“SRP”). I would encourage them to ask themselves how critical has their SRP examination results been in their lives. On my part, I can unequivocally say that my PMR results have had no bearing on my life whatsoever. Second, that the PT3 examination shifts towards testing critical thinking skills as opposed to rote memorization can only be good for your children and perhaps their younger siblings. Everything is Google-able nowadays. When I want to refer to some obscure factoid or even a major economic theory that I cannot remember off the top of my head, I refer to Google or some textbook. Rote memorization is an outdated skill. Critical thinking is not; whether you are happy with the results of your children or not, moving towards critical thinking is an overall positive move for a child’s education.
Third, the public education personnel, from the Minister of Education to the teachers at schools. The PT3 examination – or at least the spirit of the PT3 examination (fewer multiple choice questions, more critical-thinking based questions) – is a move in the right direction. However, simply implementing the PT3 does not imply that it will work. Malaysia and many other countries have seen their fair share of white elephants that are a result of something economist Lant Pritchett calls ‘isomorphic mimicry.’ It is where you mimic some global ‘best practice’ just to look like you are undertaking global ‘best practices’ without actually generating any meaningful transformation within the system. And so, I am all for school-based assessments but this needs to be complemented with other policies. For one, it is important not to penalize the first batch of PT3 students for any mishaps that inevitably occur when something new is being implemented. I am not saying that their PT3 results should be disregarded, but rather, in deciding on students to matriculate into charter schools and/or the various MRSM’s, consider rather the student’s achievement record for the entirety of her secondary school career, as well as her extracurricular activities and who she is as a person. After all, a recent research paper by Victor Lavy, Avraham Ebenstein, Sefi Roth show that variations in ambient air pollution during examinations can have significant impacts on student scores. Perhaps the student was under the weather on the day of the examination or perhaps there was more haze during the day or perhaps the implementation of the PT3 was imperfect. Should that student and her immediate scholastic future be held responsible for that?
Lastly, and most importantly, the students. In my capacity as an interviewer for Harvard College, I have found that the most outstanding candidates are not necessarily those with the best academic results but those who are the most holistic individuals and care passionately about some topic. They have pursued a given project or initiative out of nothing other than love and curiosity for their given topic. Yes, academic scores do matter because the Office of Admissions wants to ensure that incoming students are prepared for the academic rigor of Harvard’s curricula, but there is more to who you are than your academic results. Do not beat yourself up too much about your academic results, focus a lot more on who you are as a person and what you care about. This, if I may humbly submit, is a more sure way of getting ahead in life than acing all of your examinations.