Difficult to score on moving goalposts

I had to be on a day-trip to Penang on December 22, 2014 which was the same day that candidates who have sat for the lower secondary school’s Pentasiran Tingkatan 3 (PT3) (which has replaced the traditional Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) examination by the power that be) would get their results. My daughter was one of the 453,413 candidates. When I reached Penang at around 10:30 am I gave my wife a quick call to check on my daughter’s performance. I wanted to speak to my wife first just in case we have some “unforeseen” results. But my daughter answered the call instead, because her mother was driving.

“How many “B”s did you get?”, that was my opening line. “I am surprised you ask this funny question!”, my daughter answered indignantly.

She did her best and scored 5 “A”s, 3 “B”s and 2 “C”s. Naturally, she along with a few hundred thousands “PT3ers” were disappointed and rightly so. Both my wife (a former teacher) and I feel that our daughter has done her very best and we are proud of her achievements despite being one of the “guinea pigs” for Ministry of Education.

Anyone who plays football can tell you that it is very, very difficult to score a goal if the goalposts keep moving. Those charged with implementing PT3 must be either fickle-minded, lack planning skills or both. Parents, students and even teachers have been left guessing what to expect of PT3 candidates and how assessments were to be taken. This was not helped by the constant adjustments to the entire PT3 system. At one point, we did not even know whether there would be a “final” examination, or if there was one, in what format it was going to be. One thing good about this is that the “advantage” held by those who are “customers” of tuition centres have been mainly nullified. No one, even the teachers had any idea what to expect in the entire PT3 examination system. To me, those deciding on the PT3 were actually making up the “rules’ as they went along. This is grossly unfair to all stakeholders. If the system is not yet fully tested and the plan not fully thought out, it would have been better to have retained the PMR for this cohort and implement PT3 for those who have started Form 1 in 2014. The RM100 million questions include, why was the haste in implementing PT3? What was the rationale? Who stood to benefit from this premature implementation of PT3? (the PT3 candidates, their parents and teachers surely were not the beneficiaries)

As an educationist, I have nothing but praise for the concept of PT3. It has many positive features such as giving greater emphasis on continuous learning and assessment. This makes life a lot more difficult for those lazy students and reward those who put in consistent hard work. However PT3 is a great idea that has been very, very poorly executed. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. The constant yo-yoing of policies and instructions given by those handling the PT3 system had caused the poor candidates (their teachers and parents) to second guessing what would the system churn out next.

You cannot sail a ship that is half built and hope that it will withstand the waves in the high seas. It was just plain luck that this half built “ship” called PT3 was only “partially submerged” in its maiden voyage! One thing great about the PT3 system is that “leaking” of examination question papers so endemic in our examination system seems to be “eliminated”.  Schools have the option to choose which version of the examination paper to use.  I am sure the PT3 system has a built-in mechanism to ensure that questions chosen and compiled for different versions of the same subject would assess the students in the similar manner and there is a moderation process to ensure equality. There should not be any “harder” or “easier” papers. I think the power that be should make sure that this process is transparent and communicated well to all stakeholders.

Because of these moving goalposts (I heard that even the scoring system for grades was changed unannounced), many elite schools that were accustomed to producing 70 – 80 or more students with straight “A”s are seeing this elite lot in single digits in 2014. But as a parent, I would strongly advise that we treat our children’s PT3 results as a form of attainment and a rite of passage.  The schools, teachers and candidates are all victims of a badly executed but highly progressive examination system. Console your children if they did not do as well as expected. Tell them that PT3 is only the second public examination in their learning journey, and it is not the “be all and end all” of their tenure as a student. There are bigger challenges ahead. They must enjoy learning and carrying on learning all their lives.

I do advise students who are unhappy with their PT3 results to file in their appeals (there is still about 1 week left to file an appeal by Jan 21, 2015). They owe it to themselves and their younger colleagues at schools to voice up their discontent. Perhaps the power that be may take notice if there are 100,000 appeals. It should take those charged with implementing the PT3 to task for messing up a great opportunity in making progress in our education system due to their inaptness and some might say, incompetence.

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This article was initially written to be published as the penultimate piece on my column in Focusweek / Focus Malaysia last week (Jan 10, 2015). But as there was a change in arrangements which resulted in an earlier termination of my association with the publication, I am publishing this article on my own blog instead. I hope my readers in Focus Malaysia can find this and like this!

……………………….Chow YN, PhD.

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