My Say: Everyone needs to calm down about PT3

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IN PRINCIPLE, I am all in favour of decentralisation. I think far too much is centralised in Malaysia, and that includes examinations. The new Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3 (PT3) is meant to move away from that, decentralising the administering of Form Three examinations at the school level — away from the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR).

The PT3 results were released recently to a ton of uproar. Students and parents have written in to the media, and Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan has released statements defending the PT3.

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.

However, 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 labelling these students — who are just 15, and the PT3 could very well be the biggest thing in their lives at the moment — as whiny spoilt children.

If, at some point of your life, a set of examinations, be it the PT3 or Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or even the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (back in the day) was not the biggest focal point of your life, you are kidding yourself. Give these students a break; they worked really hard under entirely new circumstances with nationally inconsistent preparation towards a new learning goal that is counter-rote memorisation-based examinations in prior years. That they are disappointed with their results and want to vent their frustration 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 there 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 to structured, centralised, memorisation-based PMR examinations. I think, and I shall elaborate on this 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 they have about the PT3 results and the choices that the results open or close for their children going forward. They need to calm down as well.

First of all, it has been about 30 years since the parents of the current generation of PT3 students took their PMR or Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP). I would encourage them to ask themselves how critical their SRP results have been in their lives. On my part, I can unequivocally say that my PMR results have had no bearing on my life whatsoever.

That the PT3 shifts towards testing critical thinking skills as opposed to rote memorisation 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 memorisation 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. The PT3 — or at least the spirit of the examination (fewer multiple choice questions, more critical thinking-based ones) — 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 penalise 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 Maktab Rendah Sains Mara, consider rather the student’s achievement record for the entirety of her secondary school career, as well as her extra-curricular activities and who she is as a person.

 After all, a recent research paper by Israeli economists Victor Lavy, Avraham Ebenstein and Sefi Roth shows 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 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.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist-in-training at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to this, he was an assistant vice-president of the research division of Khazanah Nasional Bhd.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January  05 - 11, 2014.