On 17 November 2016, the nation was shocked by the results of ‘Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah’ (UPSR) as only 1.1% of Standard Six students in Malaysia who sat for the UPSR examination scored straight A’s . In other words, less than 5,000 out of 452,721 UPSR students managed to get straight A’s in the past year’s primary school national examination. Compare this to the 2015 results, as many as 38,344 students obtained straight A’s. That is an 87% dramatic drop in number! However, according to the General Director of Education, it would not be fair to compare these two results as there us a change of the examination format. There were a lot of reactions given by parents especially those who were disappointed and criticism were thrown to the ministry because of this poor performance. The results completely failed to reflect the immense effort put by the students throughout the whole six years of studies.
So what actually went wrong?
Was it because of the new introduced format involving high order thinking questions? Was the standard of the questions set were too high? Or is it because of the confusing instructions in the question papers such as the English writing paper as claimed by a ‘mentally tired Malaysian’ in one of the local newspaper ?
We can dwell on the causes of this all day but let us focus on the following four burning questions about UPSR;
Why do we need UPSR?
Obviously, UPSR cannot be used to get a job in Malaysia. Generally, UPSR grades are used to see how well the students did during the primary school period. The grades are then simply used to group the students into different classes in Form 1 from the best to the last class. UPSR grades are also important for the admission into boarding schools such as Full Residential School or Mara Junior Science School. The usual entry requirement would be straight A’s in UPSR. However, if we change the entrance requirements into boarding schools, do we actually need this sort of assessment? Is that the only way to group the students into different classes?
Is UPSR effective?
UPSR is a form of a summative assessment with the objectives to assess the students at the end of a term or period and to see how well they have learned based on a grading system .
It focuses on the product rather than the process to create the product. Unlike formative assessment, which emphasises feedback and helps the students to improve from the assessment,  summative assessment tends to feature a narrower range of question types, such as multiple choice, short answer and essay. The appropriation of either assessment, or combination of the assessments, is still vague and is also open to question.
One of the issues for UPSR is that it uses the same formatting and questions from the Ministry of Education to all students without considering their learning capabilities. For example, students with learning disorder that causes them not being able to read (ADHD for example), students with dyslexia and even students who are deaf and mute all are taking the same UPSR papers. These students are only given different facilities according to their disabilities and also extra time  but nothing more. Imagine being in the shoes of these disabled children, having to go through the same system as the normally abled students given your limitations. Is it really fair?
Another probing issue would be the norm in our culture where parents and students are so competitive in terms of grades. Questions such as “Anak kau dapat berapa A?” (How many A did your child managed to get?) or “Dapat nombor berapa dalam kelas?” (What ranking is your child in the class?) are common in conversations post the result day of examinations. These questions in many ways are inappropriate because these grades are not for the public to judge but for the teachers to evaluate and use to help improve the students’ performance for the latter next stage of education.
So this should beg the parents or students to then to ask a bigger question;
How predictive of success are UPSR results?
A quick analogy can be used to help us reflect on the question better.
If a measure of success in football is… say the number of goals scored, to vary much among the leagues. Are all positions in the field truly a ‘successful’ player? Then not all players are actually needed in the team as not all players are scorers or attackers within the team.
Albeit the analogy between football and UPSR is not perfect, the point remains. Like football, UPSR provides a little if not some useful information to the students and teachers about the former’s performance but it is only a rough measure of intellectual preparedness. UPSR should not be made into an obsession. UPSR, in one aspect, can be a flawed predictor, but it is also relatively objective. If used well, it can even be a crucial start for the bright, yet socially inept students’ to realise their potential.
Should UPSR be abolished?
UPSR should be reviewed with the possibility to abolish, either entirely or in part, because:
- It creates exam-oriented students who only care about grades and figures at a very young age. Students should be getting the essence of learning which is to apply their knowledge and enquire more questions– or in other words is to have fun in learning.
- Students are being pressured and feel stressed because their parents are chasing after good grades and performance. Too many subjects have to be learned at a young age leading to thick reference books to be read. Some parents even send their children to tuition classes in order to improve their grades, making them lose their interests in learning. There are some parents who choose to send their children to tuition classes after school hours in order to improve the grades of their kids. This undoubtedly burdens the kids with more expectations, pressure and even risking their own social life, further causing them to lose more interest in learning. Sir Ken Robinson says that the way we are schooling the students kills their creativity in his TED* talk, which was the most viewed TED talk in history (more than 13 million views).
- It does not encourage teachers to be creative as teachers are always teaching according to the syllabus, following the textbook requirements and going for grades and key performance indicator of students. These then reduce the quality of learning for the students.
- There are many countries that do not have primary school assessment in their system and yet have far better students equipped to meet the human capital needs of the countries than ours and these countries, among others, United Kingdom, Japan and Finland.
On one hand, our national education system is still focusing on traditional learning where teachers would cover one topic after another rather than mastery learning. Teachers’ goal is to finish the syllabus so that everything is covered before the examination regardless of their students’ understanding.
So where do we go from here?
As proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968, mastery learning is incorporating feedback and corrective procedures involving organising the concepts and skills students need to master into learning units and followed by a formative assessment after the end of the learning units.
The results are then analysed to correct their learning difficulties and master the learning outcomes. After a corrective activity is done, a second formative assessment is carried out to see whether their learning difficulties have been overcome. For those who excelled in the first assessment, they are given enrichment activities to broaden their learning. This program has been proved to be effective in terms of producing better achievements and confidence to learn among students .
Instead of having UPSR, emphasising a mastery learning in primary school is a good alternative. Mastery learning greatly involves formative assessments instead of summative assessment. Formative assessments support the learning during the learning process in which the assessment is treated as a practice to the students just like a homework assignment, but is very important to the teachers to see their students’ understanding. From these assessments, the teachers are guided for future instructions and also give the students feedbacks to improve next time.
In a recent private meeting with the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, The Kalsom Movement representatives had the chance to discuss on the education system in Malaysia. Datuk Seri is having a plan to abolish UPSR and PT3 completely with similar reasoning as discussed above. I fully support his proposal but proper execution plans should be considered, in line with Education Blueprint 2025 and presented to the public (parents especially) who has been so rigid towards our conventional education system, which undoubtedly need some changes for the betterment of Malaysia’s future leaders. We need a change.
So is UPSR the best way to assess our students? Think again.
*TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas in a form of short but powerful talks around the world
*The post is based on the opinion of the writer and does not represent The Kalsom Movement.
- Abas, Azura. “UPSR Results: Only 1.11 Pct Score Straight A’s Under New Exam Format [VIDEO]”. NST Online. N.p., 2016. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.
- “Sad And Mad With Results Of UPSR 2016 – Letters | The Star Online”. Thestar.com.my. N.p., 2016. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.
- Formative And Summative Assessment. Illinois: Northern Illinois University. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.
- PANDUAN PENGURUSAN PEPERIKSAAN BAGI CALON BERKEPERLUAN KHAS (CBK). Kuala Lumpur: Lembaga Peperiksaan Malaysia. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.
- Bloom, B. S. (1976). Human characteristics and school learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.