UPSR 2016: More A's than brains?

DECEMBER 2 ― I sat for my UPSR exams almost 30 years ago. It was 1988 and we were the first batch to sit for the exams. Before us, it was the “Standard Five” exams sat by the pre-KBSR batch. They had a different system than ours.

I remember reading their books on Pendidikan Sivik and Tatarakyat which were not actual exam subjects but had disappeared by the time our batch came along.

After sitting for my exams that year, I remember going home thinking how disappointed my family would be with the results. My 12-year-old mind already knew what a poor performance it was and I expected correspondingly poor results. 

I was in Bagan Ajam visiting my parents (dad moved all over Malaysia for work so I lived with my grandparents, aunts and uncle) during the December school holidays when my aunt telephoned with the results.

She decided to prank me by telling me I only scored 2 A's but the joke was on her ― I expected no A's at all! When I was told the actual results ― 5 A's instead of 2, if you’ll forgive the gloating ― I was rather dumbstruck.

I had not expected it at all but who was I to complain, right? I later on found that a number of other students who were not normally over-achievers had also done very well in the UPSR.

I don’t know how the UPSR results were measured in the subsequent three decades up to this year but it seems like enough As were given to keep the kids ― and their parents ― happy or even ecstatic. Then UPSR 2016 happened. The format was changed and a whopping 1.1 per cent of students scored the coveted straight A's compared to the 8.4 per cent of the previous year. There was naturally a huge uproar at this.

The first question we need to ask about this whole episode is ― do A's matter? Of course they do but in what way? UPSR scores will definitely be looked at when it comes to residential schools (Royal Military College and MRSMs, for example) but since all pupils are graded according to this new standard, then the scarcity of straight A’s will be evened out by the number of candidates applying for those colleges. In other words, nothing will change on an essential level.

However, what about on a superficial level? This is the real question indeed. Children and more so, their parents, will need to adjust to the fact that A’s are not as easily achieved.

After decades of relatively easy A’s, this adjustment will not be overnight. Rather, there will be a few painful years during which children and parents will realise that only the cream of the crop will achieve top marks.

We are told that Education director-general Tan Sri Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof said under the new format, students were required to answer more questions using higher order thinking skills (HOTS).

What these questions entail was not explicated nor were we told what “higher thinking” involves but presumably the name implies that more thinking rather than rote learning is involved. If that is indeed the case, then we need to welcome this system with open arms. Thinking is a skill which is simply not given enough value in today’s world.

Thinking back to my own primary school days, and come to think of it, secondary school days as well, very little emphasis was given to thinking. While science and maths subjects do require thinking, these are thinking mechanisms which are already in given systems. In other words, these are close ended questions ― you can either get it right or wrong if you followed the question’s assumptions. Only in rare cases is there ambiguity.

These are not the same as philosophical questions. I am not referring to formal philosophy here, mind. I am referring to existing subjects which require philosophical thought. For example, if we asked the students, “What were the British’s motives for granting independence?” or “If the British had not granted independence, would it be moral to take it by force as Indonesia did?”, these would invoke some deep thought.

Students would need to do more than simply regurgitate what was printed in history books. Of course, the examining board also needs to expand its own thinking faculties! One cannot build a skyscraper in a sandbox.

All in all, I think if the new system required greater performance of the students, then it cannot be a bad thing. Perhaps they could reclassify their system to look as if the students have received more A’s. If that is what makes them happy, then fine. As long as the exams reflect actual performance in the real world.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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