Rethinking SPM English must-pass
We are now in the middle of Wave 2 (2016-2020), “Introducing structural change”, of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB). As far as the English language is concerned, the goal of the Education Ministry is to develop “individuals that are equipped to work in a globalised economy where the English language is the international language of communication”, and thus for Malaysians to enjoy and benefit from gainful employability.
Certain targets were put in place to achieve this goal, including “making it compulsory for students to pass the English language subject paper in SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) from 2016”, which has since been postponed indefinitely, and for “70% of students to achieve Cambridge 1119-equivalent minimum credit in English at SPM level”.
It did caution that “only 28% of students achieve at least a credit “benchmarked to Cambridge 1119” through assessing, specifically, reading and writing skills. To date, we have not moved an iota from that point. To readers who may not be aware, Cambridge 1119 is a more stringent re-mark of Paper Two of SPM English, so an A in SPM English may only be equivalent to a B in the 1119. The grade also comes in a separate Cambridge-endorsed, stamped and sealed certificate.
The MEB goes on to say that “lower student performance in the English language appears to be driven by low proficiency among English language teachers” and that “international research indicates that Malaysia’s 15% to 20% instructional time in English language may be insufficient for students to build operational proficiency”. Among many initiatives in addressing these issues is the continued assessment and upskilling of teachers, while the HIP (Highly Immersive Programme) and DLP (Dual Language Programme) are underway in schools.
One of the more significant structural changes made in Wave 2 is the introduction of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) over the last two years, led by the flamboyant Prof Dr Zuraidah Mohd Don of Universiti Malaya. She also chairs the English Language Standards and Quality Council (ELQSC) of the Education Ministry, which is entrusted with overseeing the English language education system.
Undertaken since the 1950s, the CEFR is a research paradigm that has led the development of several frameworks. Although devised to improve language teaching in Europe, it is now implemented worldwide — including in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Canada and Finland — towards reforming English language education.
The CEFR approach has been adopted in preschool, Years One and Two as well as Forms One and Two. How this is different from what was previously conducted is that it is based on what a student “can do” at a certain level, or “can do more” to rise to the next. Apart from assessing merely reading and writing, it now includes more crucial speaking and listening components. Therefore, Year Six students should attain a Basic User A2 level where they are able to carry out “real life” tasks of a touristic nature, while Form Five students should attain an Independent User B1 level where they are able to express views and hold their own in social discourse.
What is glaringly different is how the newly introduced system is slowly shifting into a more positive, uplifting and encouraging stance as opposed to a pass or “be doomed if you fail” scenario. About 36,000 students fail the SPM Bahasa Melayu (BM) paper every year. Since SPM History was made a compulsory pass subject, an additional 26,000 students would fail too. So, if students fail either BM or History, then an estimated 62,000 do not get a certificate. Of course re-sits are made available for a small fee. Teachers prefer must-pass subjects as they feel students will make a greater effort to not fail, as evidenced by the failure rate for History, which has fallen on average by 6%.
Projecting into the future, it is estimated that a further 48,000 students will fail SPM English if it is made a compulsory pass subject. If a student fails one of these subjects — BM, History or English Language — there will be as many as 110,000, or 27%, of students not going home with a certificate. This is what is holding back the Education Ministry.
While the benefits of must-pass SPM English is assumed to reduce the number of failures and open doors to tertiary education and thus graduate employability, the possibility of teachers teaching to the test, reliance on memorising spot essays and chase for As, and the holistic learning process becoming a sacrificial lamb, is all too familiar.
Looking back, as we strive towards raising educational standards, the question of morality and equity arises, and rightly so, as society matures. At the other end of the spectrum are vulnerable students, constantly faced with social economic challenges, whom we have to consider.
Merely being present at school is a challenge in itself for some. This may be the only opportunity a vulnerable student will ever have to crawl out of the poverty trap. So let us not condemn them to the stake.
Maybe the answer is to rethink the SPM English must-pass. Maybe the answer is to instead tweak it towards a certain minimum CEFR level. Maybe it is time the vulnerable are extended a helping hand. Be generous with the CEFR budget so that teachers are fully equipped to ensure that every child is encouraged and no one is left behind.