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Revamping education: Is the government up to it?

THE idea of abolishing the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) exams shouldn’t have taken us by surprise when Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced it in June 2010.

Those who follow developments in the Education Ministry might recall that plans to have school-based assessments instead of centralised exams have been on the cards since the last parliamentary term. The National Education Blueprint 2006-2010 had talked about moving in that direction. There was already the idea that the public school system should be made less exam-oriented for students, and abolishing the UPSR and PMR were proposals that were discussed even then.

Still, public opinion is only now being solicited. And what has emerged is that revamping the education system is far more complex than the government’s oversimplified suggestion to either do away with or retain the UPSR and the PMR. The question, then, that needs to be answered is, is the government up to the challenge of such a complex task of national importance?

(Pic by ywel /

(Pic by ywel /

Framing the issue correctly

What is emerging from public discussions is that the ministry’s proposal is not just black or white. From the two ministry-sponsored roundtables so far and other roundtables and numerous letters to the media, many more questions need to be answered. If abolition is seen as a yes/no issue, the overall feedback then appears largely in favour of retaining the exams. However, is this the best way to frame the issue?

Here are some views and questions collated from various forums such as news reports about the ministry’s roundtables, dialogues organised by other groups like the MCA and Gerakan, and letters to the media:

  • There is not enough research or empirical data to justify such a move.
  • Public exams are still needed for uniformity in assessing students.
  • PMR should be abolished, but UPSR retained.
  • If PMR is abolished, how would this affect the streaming of students in Form Four?
  • UPSR should be retained but moved earlier to Standard 5. Year Six should be a “remedial” year for pupils who did poorly in the UPSR to prepare them for secondary school. As such, remove classes for vernacular school students should also be stopped.
  • Drop non-core subjects like civic and moral education, and Religious Studies from being counted in exam results. Let these be “pass/fail” subjects. Or take these out of formal education altogether and leave them to be taught by religious bodies and parents.
  • Instead of abolishing the exams, review the way exam questions are asked. Test students on knowledge and reasoning, rather than memorisation of facts. Currently, Malaysian exams are focused on the “lowest order of thinking”, which is dependent on rote learning.
  • Also review the number of subjects, and which ones students should be tested on.
  • Retain centralised exams but revamp them and have a balance between public exams and school-based tests to assess students holistically. Exams currently test only the academic component of students’ multiple intelligences, but not their other abilities.
  • The issue is not centralised exams or school-based testing. The issue is the quality of teachers to begin with.
  • It is not centralised exams that promote an exam-orientated culture of rote learning. It is the monthly, term, trial and yearly school exams that are giving students undue pressure. The number of these additional exams throughout the year should be reduced.
  • Instead of scrapping exams, it is teaching and learning methods that should be changed to promote experiential learning, understanding, creativity and critical thinking.
  • If centralised exams are replaced with school-based assessment, can teachers be trusted to set aside their personal, religious or racial bias when grading students?
  • With school-based assessments, teachers will need to be trained to design and conduct such assessments. Will the training be adequate, or will some teachers still struggle as many did despite being trained to teach Mathematics and Science in English?
  • Could a test, or pilot project, of how school-based assessments would work be held first before a final decision is made?
  • What will the impact of abolishing UPSR and PMR be on students in poorer, rural schools? How will it impact the urban-rural divide?
  • Public education should be revamped to cater to the majority of students who are rural based and underperformers. Currently, teachers tend to focus on students whom they feel will score As to boost school performance.
  • A comprehensive, long-term policy or at least a 20-year education policy is needed, and must include improving teachers’ quality and welfare.

Despite the question of abolishing exams clearly being a complex issue, Muhyiddin, who is also the education minister, says the government will make a decision about the matter in September. At the same time, the ministry already has a detailed plan on how school-based assessments are to be conducted in place of UPSR and PMR.

Courage to decentralise education

September is a month away, and given the above concerns, one wonders how the Education Ministry will respond. Will it clarify the uncertainties? Will it come back with a proposal for more public feedback? Will it conduct a pilot case study on school-based assessments? Or will it ram through a final decision?



Ultimately, exams are a necessary evil. And doing away with them doesn’t address other overarching concerns about the education system as listed above.

If, as Muhyiddin said, the reason for abolishing public exams is to make the education system less exam-oriented and more holistic, then the focus should be on changing teaching and learning methods. Substituting centralised exams with school-based testing while doing nothing to improve teacher and teaching quality doesn’t guarantee that public education will be any less exam-oriented or more holistic.

If time, money and effort will have to be invested in training teachers to handle school-based assessments, wouldn’t the same investment be better spent on a thorough revamp of the education system? Changing the nature of public exams along with reviewing the curriculum and improving teacher quality and teaching methods can be a place to start.

It would be heartening if after all the feedback, the government would have the courage to re-consult all stakeholders on what should be done next. Even if it means abandoning the question of “abolish or not” and rephrasing it to address the concerns that have been raised. It would be a start to de-politicising education and placing it in the hands of stakeholders.

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7 Responses to “Revamping education: Is the government up to it?”

  1. “Substituting centralised exams with school-based testing while doing nothing to improve teacher and teaching quality doesn’t guarantee that public education will be any less exam-oriented or more holistic.”

    Very well said!

    “The National Education Blueprint 2006-2010 had talked about moving in that direction. There was already the idea that the public school system should be made less exam-oriented for students, and abolishing the UPSR and PMR were proposals that were discussed even then.”

    How was the study for this National Education Blueprint done? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me as though it was not taken from a very wide pool of educators. It seems to me that the Ministry’s move took teachers and members of the national education administration completely by surprise.

  2. Bigjoe says:

    The short answer to the title question is easy -NO!NO!NO! Nein! Nein!Nein! If you talk about revamp – actual major reorganisation, remaking the system for major result change, it must begin with change of government. There is simply no other place to begin.

    Without change of government, there simply are only tweaks here and there that can be done but the major problems and solutions to it can never be implemented.

    Holistically speaking the biggest issues of education is the same as with corruption and NEP. It simply has too many structural problem that begin with the politics. AND fixing corruption and NEP is actually easier than fixing education AFTER the government is changed.

    Education is an investment. It’s even a more complicated than any mega project, building economic sectors or industries, a car factory, Islamic finance, knowledge economy, bio-tech sector etc. It has a very long gestation period and its not simply about investment and selling a product – it really starts with putting together THE investment together by a number of parties, implementing the production of that product by a number of people, and THEN selling that product to customers who will pay a premium for it for a good period of time.

    The idea that the current government and BN system which is failing economically, governance, etc. even have a chance of a more complicated area of education is just simply really really bad thinking.

    • To Bigjoe:

      I tend to have a different opinion — proper change begins at the grassroots, not from the top. A government cannot do much if it is faced with a people that remains unchanged in their perspectives.

      • Andrew I says:

        But Kate, do you not wonder who shaped those perspectives in the first place?

      • Bigjoe says:

        Systematic grassroots change doesn’t happen on its own. It happens via two ways either by technological change or by innovation. The present system does not allow much of both – that is a structural problem that only a change of government will do. Something as simple as if you are a teacher who wants to spend a little more time and effort with weak students, you will be steamrolled over by the system.

  3. DLim says:

    OMG, I shiver at the thought if all the grand plans go wrong because educational is a vital lifeline in a country’s survival in this competitive world.

    Get it wrong, the future generations will pay the dues of their elders’ follies. People with monies will be able to buy better education in private schools and ultimately, the people who lose will be the poor. This will create a higher stratification of society which will create problems in the longer term. Has the government made studies of overseas countries who have done away with schools exams? Were they successful and what made them successful? Did the students appear to be competitive worldwide? We can argue that rote learning is bad, but at the end of the day, any exam does require some rote learning. How can we do our sums well if we don’t know our timetables? Think carefully before we take the great leap to ‘better educational outcomes’ or ‘worse educational outcomes’ for the sake of the country and future generations.

  4. Dr. K says:

    1)Revamping the education system requires a new well designed framework to begin with that highlights the current flaws in the system and solution to counter them. It starts with de-politicising the education system.

    2)The head of the MOE should be someone with an education background rather than one with economics and Malay studies background. I am sure there are many qualified academicians in Malaysians who could lead this post. With improper background, how could the head decide the direction of the MOE.

    3)Secondly, teachers training colleges/universities must be re-evaluated so as to know the quality of the trainers firstly. We all know not all teacher trainees wanted to become teachers in the first place (may have been a last resort profession). We need to identify those with teaching passion and those without. Then we can stream them in the training colleges/universities in order to seed in the teaching passion in them. Once the passion is planted, the next stage is to polish teaching skills. Teaching skills are most important as this would make the future teachers have different teaching methods to suite the their environment (ie. pupils, location, situation).

    4)The ratio of teachers to students must be minimized. During my time the ratio was about 1:40 and this makes it difficult for teachers to personally be involved in each student’s performance. When the ratio is that big, the obvious method of assessment would be exam based. To call for the abolishment of UPSR and PMR, the ratio must be cut down to at least 1:20 which makes it more manageable for the teachers in assessing students.

    5) The school-based assessment model/framework must first be drawn up and public input is crucial in this matter. Parents need to know the pros and cons of this new model. The effectiveness must be highlighted in various forms of case studies. Could this school-based assessment be a success to all schools in Malaysia? How would this system fare in rural areas where most parents are poorly educated? What are MOE initiatives to enlighten them on the matter?

    6) I agree with Deborah Loh’s article, indicating that UPSR could be moved to Year 5 and making Year 6 a remedial class for those who did not do well to prepare for secondary education. Subjects for UPSR should be a maximum of 4 subjects (BM, BI, Maths, Science). Other subjects like P. Islam, P. Moral, etc. should be assessed during each year of primary schooling via quarterly mini tests or monthly quizzes or course works so as to make sure the students are in depth with these subjects.

    7) Scrapping the PMR is just a no-no for me. How would the school stream students into the arts or science streams? As far i concerned, PMR is a valid national exam. There is no need to scrap it. To scrap this, how could the MOE evaluate students using the proposed school-based assessment method as a subsitute for a “8-subject examination”? This is very unclear. Would there be pilot studies implemented at some schools in rural and urban areas? Comparisons amongst the pilot studies must be made with criterion looking at location, school environment, parents income scale, etc. once these are done, the best pilot study results would then be compared with the traditional system (existing one) and to see the improvements, quality of students, etc.

    Until the MOE could come out with a thoroughly well explained blue-print of the school-based assessment system, I am not convince if points 1 to 4 are not solved.

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