My father once told me, “Life is made up of countless small moments you won’t remember, and a few life-defining moments you will remember for the rest of your life.” And for most of us, one of those moments are our SPM examinations.
Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or commonly abbreviated as SPM, is probably the most defining moment a teenager faces in his life. For most teenagers, the SPM marks the culmination of their hard work and their effort for their entire schooling years.
Those few sets of examinations and grades will be one of the criteria that people will define them in for the rest of their life, especially when looking for jobs.
Of course, the argument can be made that SPM is not really that important, as there are people who managed to succeed even with mediocre SPM papers, and even without taking their SPM papers. But those cases are the outliers - the one in a million cases who managed to beat all odds and thrived, even without formal education.
For the rest of us, SPM still serves as the best foothold and stepping stone for us to grow and prosper further in our passions and career.
This makes taking the SPM a nerve-wracking time for secondary school students. It’s literally make-or-break time. And when such high pressure bears down upon someone, mistakes are bound to be made.
While countless students may have stumbled over trick questions in science, mathematics and history perhaps, one particular question stood out.
On the 7th of November 2017, the SPM English Paper 1 was conducted. In the Continous Writing section, one of the five options offered to the students reads: “If you had the opportunity to move to another part of Malaysia, where would you choose to live? Explain your choice.”
The question sounds harmless enough. But apparently, many students taking the paper missed the point of the question, where the question is actually asking for places in Malaysia, and not foreign countries.
Some students, even the excellent ones started writing about how they would choose exotic locations such as Bali, Hawaii, Maldives, or big urban cities such as New York, Seoul and Tokyo.
Simply said, the students went way out of the inclusion criterion set by the question. So this drew irate responses from parents, who weren’t happy with the question, some even to the point of calling the question “tricky and misleading”.
The parents’ anger is understandable however. This section carries 50 marks, that is 50 precious and valuable marks that can mean the difference between getting an ‘A’ for the paper, and getting a lower mark.
It can even mean the difference between passing and failing the English paper. And everyone knows how important our English scores are in the current job market.
One parent went as far as writing a letter to local English news daily The Star to express her concern and appeal for leniency from the Malaysian Examination Syndicate.
“Many students with excellent English will be deprived of their bright futures because of an error they made in SPM. Please be kind and just to these kids,” the 'Concerned Malaysian' asked and triggered a debate over how these students should be marked.
In order to understand if the mistake is justified, first we need to understand how such a mistake can be made in the first place.
So we decided to speak with an SPM candidate from Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Darul Ehsan regarding the question.
Some Friends Are Worrying About The English Question So Much They’re Not Even Focusing On The Papers That Will Come
Even though Danial said that he did not make that mistake while answering the question, he acknowledged that the question actually confounded quite a lot of students.
“Quite a number of my friends made that mistake in that question,” said Danial.
“A number of students from my school were discussing the questions after the exams finished, and they realized that they made the mistake then.
Danial said that although he did not make the mistake, he can relate to those who made the mistake.
“I understand how they can overlook that question, actually. During the examinations, most of us are facing a lot of pressure and nerves, so some details of the questions might be overlooked by us.
“There is also the question of time. Some teachers, they teach us how to allocate our time depending on the sections we are working on. So for some students who are worried on making it in time, they would rush some of the questions that they are working on,” explained Danial.
Although some might think that the problem is trivial, as one mistake on one paper doesn’t really matter, Danial also shared that it might affect students’ mentality adversely.
“Some of my friends are anxious and worrying about the English question so much now, that they’re not even focusing on the papers that will come. Even our teachers had to talk to them, as they are afraid that students will get terrible grades due to this.
“In my school, some teachers even warned the whole class not to discuss any past exams anymore, as she is afraid that the students might be mentally affected,” said Danial.
Given its far-reaching implications, we should try to get some closure as soon as possible, because as it is right now, it is affecting students badly.
“There are some candidates from other schools who did not even realize that they made a mistake, until it went viral on the internet. They found out from the internet. Can you imagine how bad they must have felt then?” implored Danial.
The students despair must have prompted some parents to write letters and complain to the ministry regarding the questions, as it seemed unfair for the students to be judged just by this one mistake they made.
And Danial agrees as well.
“The thing is, I’ve seen some of my friends completely breakdown in tears after finding out they made the mistake.
“SPM is the time for us to find out if we are qualified to pursue our passions, and get that dream career we wanted. But some of us now are worried that their future plans might be ruined due to this one mistake that they made.
“It just seems a little unfair, doesn’t it?” said Danial, who was visibly exasperated.
So after speaking to Danial, we now know how a SPM candidate can make such an unfortunate mistake.
But it’s safe to say that most of the fuss being kicked up regarding this issue is not from students, but from worried parents so we sought out their perspective to shed further insight.
“Students Have To Face The Consequences Of Their Mistakes”
Parents are understandably worried about the future of their children, and it must be harrowing for parents to think that their children’s grades might be affected by this one mistake.
But according to Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE), students should be accountable for their mistakes.
“The student misread the question, and made the mistake. The question was straightforward, and was not misleading at all,” said Datin Noor Azimah, addressing the allegations that the questions were misleading and confusing.
Datin Noor Azimah also said that the students need to be taught that they had made a mistake, and they need to live with their mistakes.
“Students have to face the consequences of their mistakes. They shouldn’t be taught at an early age that their mistakes does not matter, and can be erased any time.” stressed Datin Noor Azimah.
But this raises the question, is it unfair for a student to be punished in their grades purely because of one oversight they made?
However, Datin Noor Azimah said that there’s no need to be unduly worried.
“There are other factors that the student is marked on & therefore will not totally jeopardise the unfortunate situation. So students don’t need to be so worried about their grades just because of this mistake,” explained Datin Noor Azimah.
“Parents should not be unduly worried as there are still other questions and its suitable answers that may be able to garner & therefore make up for seemingly lost marks,” she added
But she also concurred that this doesn’t mean that parents should not complain at all if they see anything that doesn’t seem right to them.
“Parents have the right to guide and protect their children at all times regardless of the situation as any feedback is always seen as important in improving the process of teaching & learning,” concluded Datin Noor Azimah.
Speaking to Datin Noor Azimah brought up an important point, in which that students are marked in other factors as well, and that one mistake will not necessarily ruin their marks totally. However, students still need to taught to be held accountable for their own mistakes.
This observation is supported by a public school teacher who has experience in marking SPM papers to see the truth behind this claim.
“Almost Every Year We Will Mark At Least One Paper With This Kind Of Mistake”
“Students are not marked in just one section, in fact there are multiple sections where a students can be given marks, even when the students get the question totally wrong such as in this case,” said Puan Ros.
Puan Ros even shared the marking scheme with us, saying that there are seven different criterias where a student’s writing can be assessed.
“The students essay will be marked based on seven criterias, which is the language used in the essay, the sentence structures used in the essay, the vocabulary of the essay, their punctuation and spelling, usage of paragraphs, topic, and interest,” she explained.
So according to Puan Ros, in this case, the student will only lose marks in the ‘topic’ section.
She further sought to put parents unfounded fears to rest.
“They should not be worried at all. Even with this mistake, a student can still get an A in their English paper.
“Sure, they lost some marks in this section, but they can more than make up for it in the other sections. If they deserve an A, they will get an A. This mistake will not mean much at all,” Puan Ros highlighted.
Puan Ros, who has experience in marking SPM and Malaysian University English Test (MUET) examinations believes that the issue was overblown, as this is nothing new.
“Actually, almost every year we will mark at least one paper with this kind of mistake. Not reading the question properly, getting the meaning of the question wrong, it’s all nothing new, really. But this year the issue blew up, and unnecessary scrutiny was placed on the ministry and teachers,” stressed Puan Ros.
There was another aspect of this incident that the experience teacher wanted to highlight.
She said that this kind of mistake should not be happening at all, as teachers always remind their students to check their answers after finishing their exams.
“Instead, what they do is sleep the time away,” fumed Puan Ros.
Puan Ros added that parents trying to cover up for their child’s mistake is a much more worrying trend.
“I think we should be more worried about parents who keep trying to rectify their children’s mistakes.
“Students should be taught that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that they need to be held responsible for them.
“If parents keep trying to undermine the authorities and saying that their childrens’ mistakes does not matter, what kind of values are we teaching our children?” implored Puan Ros.
In conclusion, making a big fuss in defending students who make this mistake is not seeing the bigger picture.
What’s most important is the values we instill in our students. If we keep letting them to run away from their mistakes instead of being held accountable for it, the students won’t be a responsible adult later in life.
So perhaps it’s time for parents to have a long hard look at their own reaction, and rethink their priorities.