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TIMSS 2011: An Analysis of Malaysia’s Achievement

By Zul Fikri Zamir and Anas Alam Faizli

One Brazilian academician brought revival onto the critical pedagogy concept. That man was Paulo Freire. Freire persistently battled the prevailing concept of education where students were mere “empty bank accounts” for teachers to “deposit” into. This was the very education concept which saw students being forced upon with bulks of information. This “information vault” conceptualization is hardly education!

Freire proposed an intimate two-way relationship between teachers and students where both play complementary roles to each other. He stressed upon the teacher’s responsibility to teach and at the same time “learn” from the students; while students learn but also “teach” their teachers.

As a developing country made of a rich medley of various cultures and ethnicities, Malaysia is in an arguable dilemma between its own national education standards and an international education standard. The first issue that needs to be addressed here is the feasibility of a country as socio-culturally unique as Malaysia to make other countries with highly-touted education models such as South Korea and Finland as reference templates. There is also the issue of the Finnish and South Korean education models being vast opposite extremes of each other; where one is extremely open and flexible while the other adopts a very closed and structured system. How can any of these two different systems be suited to the Malaysian context?

On this issue, we side on the affirmative of Malek Bennabi’s (1905-1973) views in his article ‘Basics of Social Education’, where it is largely worth quoting that:

“It is truly a waste to refuse guidance from the experiences of others, or gain benefits from their successes. However, every act of borrowing or emulating must take into consideration the cultural and fundamental social elements of that borrowing state.”

Interestingly, he added: “In other words, we must be creating within our own countries, necessary rules and conditions, so as to guide us in using any solution to solve our own unique problems.”

Malaysia has emerged bottom in three separate studies conducted by standardized international indices. The UN Education Index ranked Malaysia 98 out of 181 countries. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates levels of literacy amongst 15-year olds in Mathematics, Sciences and Reading skills, as well as critical problem-solving as opposed to memorization, placed Malaysia 55 out of 74 countries.

Just as we attempt to gasp for some “breathing space”, there is the result from the study of Trends In Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 which revealed a significant drop in the performances of Mathematics and Sciences across all four temporal occasions of evaluation in the period beginning from 1999.

The TIMMS 2011 report revealed a plummeting trend in the position of Malaysia in the Mathematics subject where the rank fell from 16th (1999) to 10th (2003), 20th (2007) and 26th (2011). Meanwhile our position in the rank for Science subject is 22nd (1999), 20th (2003), 21st (2007) and 32nd (2011).

Similarly, our average marks for the Mathematics subjects fell from 519 points (1999), to 508 points (2003), 474 points (2007) and 440 points (2011); dropping by 79 points. Average marks in the Sciences subject also witnessed the same downfall from 492 points (1999) to 501 points (2003), 471 points (2007) and 426 points (2011); a shortage of 66 points. It is worth noting that marks less than 500 points are considered as “unsatisfactory”.

Ironically, there is this bizarre contradicting trend prevailing at home where the Gred Purata Nasional (GPN) for PMR examinations (undertaken by 15-year old Form 3 students in public schools) showed steady increases in the past five years. The GPN climbed from 2.83 in 2008, to 2.78 in 2009, 2.74 in 2010 and 2.71 in 2011.

Specifically, the number of students who obtained A in Mathematics increased from 26.7 percent in 2010 to 28.9 percent in 2011, while the number of those who obtained A in Science increased from 18.5 percent in 2010 to 21.7 percent in 2011. In addition, the record for SPM examinations in 2011, deemed as the best achievement ever recorded in five years, saw GPN increase from 5.19 in 2010 to 5.04 in 2011.

Why the contradictory results?

Preliminary Analysis

In our preliminary analysis of these results, we allow for technical difficulties such as the unfamiliarity with the English language utilized as medium for the TIMSS, the problem of coordination for differences in exam timing, and the randomized presentation of questions compared to the typically more structured style of Malaysian exam papers. These may contribute to the dismal achievement of Malaysia on a global level.

But we cannot discount the bigger problems that these clear declining trends must reveal. After a simple comparative analysis of some of the sample questions in the various testing systems, we conclude that there are a few notable issues that may be responsible for these differences:

First; the teaching and learning system in Malaysia is heavily examinations-based. Teaching is structured and geared towards exam preparations especially for the major government testing systems like PMR and UPSR. Therefore, students with excellent academic records tend to receive more monitoring and support, unfortunately at the same time effectively de-prioritizing the less affluent students.

Second; the sampling method for students chosen to take the TIMSS and PISA is randomized. This means that the results reflect that of both top and bottom students. Given the huge gap between these two groups of students in Malaysia, the average marks may have potentially brought down average marks when compared to PMR and UPSR, where focus tend to be put on those who made the most As.

Third; while it is no doubt that effort has been made to incorporate and encourage critical solutions problems via KBKK in PMR and SPM questions, the relative percentage of these type of questions remain negligible. This essentially results in a moral hazard issue; it permits students to populate as much as possible marks from the type of questions that require memorization. More difficult sub-questions with KBKK elements can easily be tactically left unanswered, without necessarily affecting overall marks in a major way or failing the students.

Fourth; Most of the questions in PMR and SPM are structured in more predictable ways compared to that of TIMSS and PISA, thereby allowing for memorization of the major themes, topics and subtopics. Mushrooming private tuition have also become a must, contributing towards the encouragement for students to memorize answers and anticipate ‘predicted’ questions. The more a student memorizes, the better he performs in exams. The proliferation of private tuition centers is further complemented with a variety of seminars offered at a fee, which crams students in halls over two days and essentially drilling them into memorizing multiple sets of exams answers. Herein lies the difference; our students are not trained to answer questions like those of the TIMSS and PISA where analysis and synthesis are required, but rather only at levels like those of the PMR and SPM where merely understanding and application skills would already suffice.

Fifth; we observe with interest that the standard of SPM and PMR questions are not too far off when compared to PISA and TIMSS questions. Therefore, if our students do not do well in PISA and TIMSS, we can infer logically that they should not do well in PMR and SPM either. This is where we raise concern on the marking standards in the PMR and SPM; or whether the grading have intentionally been lowered at the calibration stage for the overall population results, so as to exhibit an increasing performance trend on a nationwide basis?

In general, we recognize some of these achievements as a direct result of government efforts, through Ministry of Education, to help raise the performance of students, including amongst special needs children especially underachieving students, orphans, minorities and Orang Asli students.

It is thus unfortunate that in the Preliminary Report for The National Education Blueprint (PPPM 2013 – 2015), issues of students with special needs are only attended to briefly in Chapter 3: Current Performances, Education Quality and Equity in Education Policy but is left out from Chapter 8: Application and Action Plan. We believe that if the national-level performance assessments begin focusing on efforts to elevate the achievement of this special needs group of students as one of its indicators, the general level of achievement on a national basis will increase simultaneously. It is further unfortunate for education to be perpetually left as exam-oriented, static, and remain not empathetic to the philosophy of knowledge development as an enabler of critical thinking.

Going Forward: Our Proposal

Recognition is due to Ministry of Education for countless efforts to improve the current system by introducing the School-based Assessments (Penilaian Berasaskan Sekolah, PBS) for example, to replace previously heavily exam-oriented systems, and executing the iThink program through the Malaysian Innovation Agency (Agensi Inovasi Malaysia) amongst school teachers, apart from many other various programs.

Here we table suggestions of some early steps which can be taken by the authorities, as alternatives and improvements onto the current programs. From our observations, there has yet to be any specific program to help groups of students left ‘clutching onto the peripheral walls’ of the current education. These include marginalized underachievers, orphans, poor students from underprivileged households, Orang Asli, Orang Asal and students from rural parts of Sabah and Sarawak. Our analysis show that if taken seriously, these suggestions can help to boost the national education achievement level up by 40 percent within 2 years.

Firstly, a special committee of education experts from across Malaysia is to be commissioned. The committee is made of retired teachers, local university academic experts, young teachers for their zeal and as a strong implementing workforce, and even business persons which are expected to contribute their organizational skills in ensuring a robust, fair and effective distribution system.

This special committee will be responsible to identify the locations of special needs students and analyze the problems related with them. The pilot result of this study will consist of a tabulation of location, population and specific problems faced students in extracting as much from the prevailing education system, while opening and aggregating suggestions from the public and stakeholders from various segments of the society such as experts, curriculum planners and school teachers, to populate rich information and arrive at conclusions with policy implications.

The committee will then conduct comprehensive studies to create a special module taking into account the special needs of these students, with open-based input mechanisms from local educationists and new theories from public research. We propose a two-step analytical process in attempting to solve the ‘needs’ problem. Firstly is to analyze the outward exogenous issues like infrastructure and utilities, namely classrooms, tables, chairs, books and teaching tools. Second and more importantly is to not neglect the inward endogenous problems usually relating to emotional stress stemming from disruptions in the familial institutions, economic restrains or cultural differences, in the case of Orang Asli children.

Roots of each problem will be identified to help improve the formal teaching process later.

The next step is for these ‘special modules’ to go through a pilot test using a group of the best and most willing teachers within the respective selected schools. Findings from this test are then discussed again to get second opinions. Finally, this special module can be launched as an alternative for groups of students with special needs.

The ‘one-size-fits-all’ national education system currently in practice is not able to effectively impact this group of students. Students from poor families, orphans, Orang Asli kids and children from rural locations have very specific problems which cannot be catered by the current systems; this is why they are unintentionally left behind in the mainstream national education system. Shifting the focus of the national education system from high achievers to actually improving achievements among special needs students, we believe widened gaps in education

can be narrowed within two years of the implementation of such policy and is directly and positively correlated with the overall performances of students.

A Unique Country, the Best Teachers

Malaysia is a unique country, and we know that from the multi ethnic and multi cultural dimensions that exist in various geographical polities across the peninsular and East Malaysia. The national education system is not supposed to be a complete imitation of models from other countries because of the obvious differences in challenges that each face. Let’s perhaps commence with something as simple as reallocating the best teachers in each school to be responsible to the bottom-ranked classes. Teachers from that particular school will know and understand the composition and predispositions of its students better compared to school inspectors from other areas.

To ensure these efforts are realistic, attainable and sustainable for the years coming, the ministry has to ensure only the best candidates are chosen to enter the teaching profession. Candidates should be exposed with ample field experiences rather than only theoretical-based trainings, while granting them suitable social recognition as much as that of other professions, including salary levels.

Next, a study of students’ performances needs to also be carried out independently from the ministry themselves, by education faculties of public universities as an alternative form of performance assessment. Information revealed from these studies becomes ‘check and balance’ alternatives to those officially reported by the ministry. If necessary, these universities should also be incentivized to adopt specific schools under their monitoring portfolio, especially schools with low performances with a ‘Band 6’ label.

On manpower, these selected teachers is suggested to undergo lateral evaluation processes which include the student performance itself, student responses and constructive student opinion polls on teachers, as well as a monitoring process. Research by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2013) showed that teacher evaluation models using the three items above have more reliability compared to traditional models. Schools also need to shift its paradigm, its environment, mentality and attitude, from measuring achievements based on percentage of students with excellent grades and passes, to measuring percentage of students which have progressed from failing to passing.

Finally, monitoring from private bodies, the corporate sector and non-governmental organizations onto selected schools will help ensure good governance of the suggested programs. To improve transparency and accountability, two school inspectors from the ministry is dedicated to these selected schools with special needs programs for one whole annual academic session, rather than pre-announced scheduled visits by arbitrary members of the inspection force from the ministry.

By implementing two core thrusts namely a ‘National Scale’ via the special steering committee and a ‘Local Scale’ via self-assessments undertaken by school teachers, we believe that the time has come for us to begin to appreciate our differences, embrace our weaknesses and move together towards a better education system.

In ‘Critique, Contextualism and Consensus’, Jane Green quoted Charles Sanders Peirce of Cambridge University “…in order to learn, you must desire to learn and in so desiring not to be satisfied with what you already inclined to think”. Green explained further, “From this, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.” – Quoted from ‘Conformism and Critique in Liberal Society’, 2005.

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