19 March 2014

Exams do not define you

By Dr Wang Su Chen

This is the time of year when the Malaysian national school leaving examination results are published. For parents, students, teachers, this is a pivotal moment. For parents, this is the fruition of eleven years of fetching and carrying their child to school, tuition classes, and more classes; for the students, it is the culmination of years of study that have dominated their young lives and the moment that determines their future; and for the teachers, it is a pronouncement of their success as teachers.

When the moment arrives, local newspapers will herald success stories of individuals and schools that have done brilliantly and also of those who have improved tremendously. For them, there will be jubilation and celebration, but for others, there will also be disappointment and tears. So, the SPM, which is what locals call this examination, creates two classes of young teens – the A-stars and non-A-stars.

Like Olympic stars with their hard-won gold medals, A-stars can take pride in their string of high distinctions forever, whatever their future circumstances. Non-A-stars, on the other hand, tend to be marked negatively for life, as most institutions of higher learning and job opportunities use the SPM as an entry criterion.

A-stars clearly will have no problem seeking places in higher education or jobs, whereas the “losers” (I use inverted commas, as I believe that the SPM should not taint a young person’s career forever) will be most likely to face closed doors and rejection from universities and colleges as well as from many employment opportunities.

This is where educational institutions, employers, and parents, as well as impressionable teens, might take pause and look at what examinations like the SPM are all about. Consider the SPM. True, the SPM is the most important examination in a young person’s life; true, it compares that person with all the other young persons of similar age in the country, acting as a rough sieve to identify the academically inclined from the non-academically inclined. What is not true is that it is an excellent measure of an individual’s cognitive abilities. What is also not true is that it is a comprehensive measure of an individual. Examinations do not define you.

While the school leaving examination may be an effective measure of student learning outcomes at a particular point in time, teens are still developing, and as their brains develop, their cognitive abilities are also maturing. For instance, it has been found that girls generally do better at the school leaving examination than boys, probably because they tend to mature faster than boys. Boys mature slightly later into young adults, their cognitive and affective abilities developing in tandem with their physical growth. At the age of seventeen when they take their SPM, neither their cognitive nor affective abilities are those of a full-grown adult. This is one reason that less-than-brilliant SPM results should not be a black mark that stains a teen’s future for ever. They could nudge the teens to work harder and smarter, but they should not cause them to be labelled losers. The young need to know that there are many more ways (and many more challenges and examinations!) for them to prove their worth in the future.

My second point is that the SPM is not a comprehensive measure of an individual. In fact it is not designed to do that. It has been designed to assess learning outcomes that are valued by Malaysian educators and the general public.

The Malaysian education curriculum has thus been fine-tuned over recent decades to align with the following learning outcomes, and students are expected to achieve them. These outcomes include national unity and patriotism, racial harmony and cultural understanding, proficiency in the national language and a second or third language, communication skills, numeracy, mathematical skills and scientific knowledge, ethical values, healthy bodies and minds, and many other important outcomes. Pen and paper examinations taken by thousands of candidates at the same time, by their very nature, are unable to assess comprehensively any or all these varied learning outcomes. The SPM assesses only the learning outcomes specified in the parts of the curriculum that are assessable by pen and paper in two or three-hour examination papers. It is not a holistic examination of an individual’s strengths and abilities. It is at best a reasonable indication of a teen’s potential in specific areas of learning.

So, to those students who will reap a harvest of high distinctions this year, celebrate your well-deserved success with your parents, teachers and friends, for you will have excelled at this milestone; and for those who will get only passes and fails, do not let the SPM define you; let it be a milestone that spurs you on, for there are many more miles and many exciting ways yet to go.

Dr Wang Su Chen is Associate Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at swang@swinburne.edu.my