The highs of international benchmarking
Last month, I attended a talk on pursuing further education in Germany post-Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM). The talk was given by a Malaysian who had gone to university in that country, is now an engineer and working at a German company in Kuala Lumpur.
People have misconceptions about German education. It is not really free — one has to enrol for a fee-based foundation programme prior to being admitted to a tuition-free German university. One’s proficiency in German also needs to be at a satisfactory level, hence one has to spend time and money on learning the language before starting the foundation course and improve to a high proficiency level by the end of the degree.
It is noteworthy that only 20% of the engineering undergraduates complete the course and the 80% who do not may have spent up to three years on it. Indeed, the standards are set very high for a German engineering degree.
Speaking of standards, the propositions outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) to transform the local education system certainly aim high. It is a transformation that is timely and necessary to attain economic progress through education and a Herculean task for the Ministry of Education (MoE) to improve our national schools to a level we aspire to.
It is even more encouraging to see that the plans are bearing fruit, evident from the recently published results of TIMSS 2015 and, to a certain extent, the PISA 2015 international benchmarking test.
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) is a quadrennial international benchmarking test that measures the performance of Form 2 (Grade 8) students in mathematics and science. This is the fifth time, since 1999, that we have participated in the test.
It was reported that our scores improved from those in TIMSS 2011. This is a positive development and it is apparent that we have arrested the decline for now.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the application of knowledge to reading, science and mathematics. In comparison with TIMSS, PISA questions are not as straightforward and require some thinking and data extrapolation. This is the third time Malaysian students have attempted PISA, which is done every three years and taken by 15-year-olds.
What is puzzling about the results of PISA 2015 is that Malaysia is not ranked, although the MoE announced our scores. How is it that PISA required an 85% response rate of the sample size but submission was based on only 51%? What were the scores based on? MoE should clarify this and not leave anything to speculation.
Furthermore, in terms of international standards, it is claimed that SPM is benchmarked against the General Secondary Certificate of Education (GCSE) O levels. However, the marking scheme may differ as well as some parts of the curriculum. It used to be that SPM certificates were issued by the local examination syndicate, being the University of Cambridge, which was seen to be of high standard and stature.
We wonder if Lembaga Peperiksaan (LP) has the same standard of excellence as the University of Cambridge. The Cambridge assessment comes under the university but LP does not come under any local education research university. It is under the aegis of the MoE and the purview of the Minister of Education.
Clearly, we focus a lot of efforts on ensuring that our students’ outcomes are benchmarked against international standards. However, Malaysia must place more importance on the input that will transform the outcomes. The whole structure and environment of our education system and processes must also adhere to international standards, that is the teachers, the leadership, teacher training programmes and methodologies of pre-service and in-service teacher development programmes. At the same time, the district, state and central offices and officials must be benchmarked against international best practices.
According to the 2014 MEB annual report on improving the quality of education, 2,000 potential head teachers graduated from the National Professional Qualification of Education Leaders (NPQEL) programme with 63% receiving CGPA of 3.75. Is the NPQEL assessed and benchmarked internationally?
Historically, the Barnes and Fenn-Wu report of 1951 was forward-looking in having said that it regarded the ability to read and understand English indispensable if the teachers were to keep up to date with teaching methods.
We, at Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE), opine that teachers must possess at least a bilingual ability, that is to understand, speak and write in Bahasa Malaysia and English well, in order to keep abreast of the latest developments in the world, just like other professionals in the country. For students to master the English language, teachers, especially the head teachers, must themselves have that competence in order to lead the way.
It is about time we had international benchmarking for the teaching profession. This is what we can learn from PISA and TIMSS, that we adopt from and adapt to the best practices of top-performing countries. It is not enough to focus solely on students’ outcomes. These international assessments prove that students score higher when the teachers explain, discuss and demonstrate an idea and tailor it towards the needs of the former.
Teachers and school leaders must have the capability to do so. It would do a lot of good for disadvantaged schools. When more students learn, the whole system benefits. Can we expect high standards of our teachers, school leaders and the whole structure of our education system?
PAGE is praying for higher standards in the coming year. Until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.