Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Making an English SPM 'pass' compulsory

Much has been made of the fact the DPM and Education Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin, did not know that it was not compulsory have a 'pass' in English at the SPM level. Later UMNO Youth came out to support making an English pass compulsory at the SPM level, subject to some caveats. I have some reservations about making a change to the current policy and here's why.

Firstly, this proposed policy change (making an English SPM pass compulsory) is premised on the false assumption that the standard of English will increase as a consequence of this policy change. Without any changes in the quality of teachers who teach English, especially those in the rural areas, or other resources aimed at improving the standard of English in our schools, all things being equal, this policy will only result in an increase of those who will fail their SPM because of failure to pass the English exam.

Secondly, this proposed policy change will increase the incentives to make the English exam even easier than it already is as well as to decrease the passing mark for the same exam. The bureaucrats at the MOE do not want to have political heat on their backs as a result of the protests of many parents whose children did not manage to pass their SPM English exam. The path of least resistance would be to either make the English SPM exam easier or to decrease the passing mark or to do both!

Thirdly, this proposed policy change presupposes that every SPM holder requires a passing level of English to get on with life. Sure, it would be difficult to read English textbooks and articles at the university / college level without a proficient understanding of English. But if the medium of instruction in our public universities continue to be in BM, then I see no reason why not having an English SPM pass should be the basis for denying a student entry into one of the public universities or a matriculation program. Furthermore, there are many career paths which are open to Malaysians which require only a minimal level of English proficiency. I don't see why Malaysians who choose to pursue these career paths should be denied an SPM certificate just because they fail to pass their English exam at the SPM level.

This is in no way an argument to diminish the importance of English. Most of the top jobs in the private sector require a high proficiency in English. Most of the top jobs in the civil service require at least a decent level of spoken English. But I think having this policy change distracts from the more important and pressing objective of improving the standard of English in Malaysia. Making an English pass compulsory at the SPM level is the easy part. Making substantive changes to the way English is taught in our schools in the much harder and more important challenge.


Shawn Tan said...

Putting on the black hat, are we?

While the bureaucrats may choose to go that way, I think that teachers may go the other. With increase pressure on the students to learn English, the teachers would also be pressured to do one better. I also think that getting a 'pass' may not be as difficult as most people think. Let's try to give these rural kids some credit.

Cheng Leng said...

I'm saddened and bewildered that there isn't any plan being revealed that shows how we will improve every student's grasp of the English Language to complement this.

How lacking in compassion this is!

Wei Jiet said...

I know I'm in no position, be it the on the summit of high-rise mountains or the deepest pit-holes, to comment much on the recent proposal by the government that all students must pass English to gain the SPM certificates. Living in the urbanised high-tech cosmopolitan city where information is overflowing and knowledge is abundant with the click of a button (ok, I'm just a little bit overexxagerating on lonely-pensioner's town Muar here.....), I wouldn't have an iota of an idea on the difficulties faced by the students in rural areas (risking my life walking through tiger infested jungles everyday to school or groping for my Chemistry textbooks in darkness....) , which are the ones that are thrusted to the limelight in this recent spectacle. This is because if English is a must pass, about 30% of students, mostly rural ones, will not get the "coveted" SPM cert.

Well, firstly, I'm curious as to why the rural students are still called "rural students" nowadays? Yes, of course they are called so because they live in the "pedalaman", but I'm talking more than the literal meaning here. After 50 years of independence, shouldn't even the most remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak have the infrastructure for academic pursuit, be it classrooms, libraries, toilets, electricity supply, water and transportation? If not, then what are the state governments doing all the while? If RM 13 billion can be thrown to the sea (literally) just like that in the Port Klang Free Zone scandal, what is building, say, 50 well equipped schools mean to them? If the Terengganu government can spend billions providing laptops to every single student in the state, what is providing ample books and uniforms to poor rural folks mean to them? If cases of corruption by high post office bearers like the recent MMR2 or MRR2 or whatever highway scandal that is in KL is hale and hearty in Malaysia, what is providing daily boat or bus rides for Orang Asli children to go to school mean to them? Logical, right?

Another scenario is this: the rural folks do not want to send their children to school or have the mentality that gaining an education seems less important compared to other things. Yes, this may be true, they probably want their children to undergo simple traditional lives and abide by the customs and ancient rules so that everyone can live in peace and harmony....is this true? Someone tell me about this....I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the rural folks, I respect their way of life. Can this be the crux of the problem?

One way or another, the vital key in unlocking this mysterious and annoying door which had been unceremoniously opened, no, broken down to bits by the force of a one million kilojoule bulldozer with a poor sense of direction is TRAINING BETTER ENGLISH TEACHERS. Making English a pass without improving the quality of education and ability of teachers is just like using a bucket to fetch water from the Pacific ocean hoping it would dry up one day. I can already visualize the end of the road; the Ministry will flex their muscular awesome power to pull down the already grounded grade which just has a few milimetres left before hitting rock-bottom, which sees many students passing English and then declare this a "success". Move over, David Copperfield.

I just hope I'm bloody hell wrong this time.

Anonymous said...

shawn, if only you could get your hands on english exam scripts for rural spm candidates, your jaws will drop. don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Anonymous said...

Our ministers, members of parliament,lecturers, teachers English all terok!
So how the crab can ask its baby crabs to walk straight?
Y dont Dr M say anything whether he unplugged everything and try to replug again?
Currently we are having too many private and public universities, yet want to talk about top 100 or wat, but english so lousy

Big M said...

When the Government changed the medium of insruction of all subjects from English to BM some 30 to 40 years ago many teachers and students also faced a lot problems. I was one of them affected as a student, as most of the teachers just could not teach effectively in BM, a subject which they had studied and taught in English before the switch was made. The deterioration in English then happened over all these years when students started to learn everything in BM and later on became teachers themselves. Hence to do a reverse or a semi-reverse now it has to take time for the result to be seen, when students who learn in English become teachers later on. It has to start somewhere, like making English a compulsory pass subjec. Some poorer students will be disadvantaged and sacrificed. You just can't have a fit-all policy which benefits everybody. This is the price the people have to pay for the wrong policies set by past politicians.

Apex U said...

I am most surprised that the Apex university (USM) can actually accept students with Band 1 in MUET. This is so ridiculous!

Band 1- Extremely limited user (Below 100) Poor command of the language. Unable to use language to express ideas: inaccurate use of the language resulting in frequent breakdowns in communication. Little or poor understanding of language and contexts. Hardly able to function in the language.

Also check on this site: http://www.malaysia-students.com/2007/07/malaysian-university-english-test-muet.html

I hope Tony, Kian Ming and John will take a closer look at this issue.

Apex U said...

Sorry, I left out the USM link

Anonymous said...

The English level in our education system is not effective enough. I studied English since young and always get an A for most of the exams here until I came to the US (California to be exact). I have to retake English-100 (something like a pre-requisite for 1A) and not English 1A after taking ENL-101 (equivalent to ENGL 1A) in a college. This shows that our education system for English is unreliable even at the college level. What I learned in a quarter here is more than what I had learned since the age of 7. Something needs to be done about this and not just making it a compulsory hoping that it will encourage students to improve by themselves.

I suggest that teachers should undergo intensives English training before allowed to educate students. Teachers should also learn to teach more creatively rather than their stereotypical attitude toward their job. The most important part is to change from emphasizing on final exam to emphasizing on assignment and balance it with tests and exams because it will help students to learn faster while they are doing researches for their assignments. This process helps me to improve and learn faster for every subject I took here

NanieRizal said...

As an English teacher, I agree that something has to be done to increase the standasrd of TESL in schools, then and only then, can we think of chsanging the policy.

Anonymous said...

My dear,
Regarding MUET as mentioned by Apex U said, whya MUET suddenly being the bench mark? Please understand the whole thing about MUET before putting it into picture. MUET is not even mentioned in IPTS why only IPTAs. Please get real info on MUET. The history, the process of marking the 800/2 Listening paper and 800/1 writing paper. The validity of the test (listening) as against the marking of the paper.Reliability of the writing test as against the markers. My question, why MUET? Majlis Peperiksaan Malysia is making MUET as a source of side income for the. From RM 50 and then 60 as the subject exam fee and conducted twice a year, now it is RM100 and three times a year. MUET result also has its expiry period (5 years). It is a good test (testing all the 4 skills LSRW) compared to SPM English but the whole process of MUET should be reviewed.