Parents and the general public were pleasantly surprised when the SPM results were announced on June 10 for the 2020 batch of 17-year-old students. Not only did the national grade average improve despite the challenges of Covid-19, but it was the best score ever over the past five years. The STPM results appeared similar, but again, it was not reflective of the dire straits students and teachers were faced with.
The Ministry of Education had from the start stood firm that marking standards would remain and no compromises would be made to the curriculum despite the most trying times of online as well as offline learning. Parents were hence prepared for dismal results.
Students at one end of the spectrum had devices and connectivity, albeit intermittently, with conducive study areas, while those at the other end had to make do with TV Pendidikan. The majority in the middle of the spectrum would have had to share devices (a smartphone is not a conducive learning tool) with their siblings or parents, coupled with lagging connectivity, if any at all, inadequate data storage, and rising household debt due to a loss of income or employment.
It has worsened since, with some parents having to queue for food packets, or wait in line at the numerous Covid Assessment Centres, or worse, in hospitals fighting for their lives.
Or is it cruel adversity that has driven these students to outperform beyond expectations?
Heartiest congratulations to all students who worked hard against all odds, particularly Nur Najihah. The student in Perlis, who lives in a dilapidated home in the middle of a padi field, scored 10As. Meanwhile, the child of a factory operator got 9As, and 1,098 MRSM students achieved all As.
In addition, 93 students from the Orang Asli community, such as Ally Shafika, obtained excellent results. A Kelantan student who borrowed his father’s phone for online classes excelled with 11As, and a rubber tapper’s son, Mohamad Hakimi, attained top marks in the STAM (short-term actuarial mathematics) exam.
From the initial surprise, the feeling has swiftly turned into awe, and now, disbelief. The fact that there is suspicion over the SPM results is telling. There appears to be a long-standing trust deficit, not just of the education system but also of the examination syndicate.
However, during these difficult times, there appears to be grade inflation, where teachers tend to accord higher marks than normal, not just here but globally. It may be a desire to reward students for having to face the difficult circumstances which have unfortunately befallen them, or maybe to inspire teachers to do better despite the abysmal conditions.
Nevertheless, it is time for serious discussions to begin with stakeholders over the overall grading system and making them public at some point in the near future. It is not about shaming or finding blame with the examination syndicate or the Ministry of Education. It is merely about giving the students a strong foundation in order for them to proceed to the next phase of their academic life with confidence.
While it has become an annual affair for the grading system to be questioned, and then forgotten, the subjects most asked about are the English language and Additional Mathematics. There would be grave concern if the passing mark for English language and Additional Mathematics is lowered. As the grading system falls under the Official Secrets Act 1972, it cannot be revealed. Let the policymakers undo it so it can be analysed for everyone’s benefit.
If the trend shows that students are failing badly in a particular subject, there are obvious questions that should be asked by educators. Is it the student who is incapable, the teaching methods that need to be revamped, the teacher who needs to be re-trained, the assessment itself, or something else altogether?
The examination syndicate may want to consider producing a detailed audit report for public consumption to explain where the problems are and what can be introduced or incorporated to improve the students’ outcomes. If this is already being done, then share it with the public. Make the recommendations so that teachers can work towards them. The English language, Mathematics and Science are critical subjects which, if embraced collectively, may well alter significantly the trajectory of the economy and the rising debt of the nation.
Educational assessment bodies like Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programmes for International Student Assessment (PISA) produce lengthy reports and pinpoint where a country’s weaknesses lie, its rationale, and recommends the next move towards a better outcome.
The Cambridge Assessment International Education provides the percentage uniform mark alongside the grade on statements of results. We should take a leaf from these best practices.
Let us tackle this once and for all. While two-thirds of SPM school leavers will not pursue higher education, we owe it to those who will. Prepare them well enough in order for them to manage the rigorous regime of college and university.
We do not want to see any more unnecessary misfortunes, including the deaths of undergrads who are unable to cope with mental health issues, assignment overload and tough examinations, by laying the foundation solidly right from the beginning.
Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE)