Evaluating Education: High Stakes Testing and Teacher Responsibilities

“I think by far the most important bill in the whole code of mankind is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people.” -Thomas Jefferson
Form 6, Pre-University Students

Form 6, Pre-University Students at SMK Maran

        As many might know, much of my time in Malaysia was spent analyzing education. Besides being able to visit obscure locals,  be invited to awkward family meals, and learn first-hand the meaning of the phrase “The Village Freak”, I was also able to conduct a helpful diagnostic  of educational issues. Though much of my time has been spent as a teacher and community organizer  most of my time has been bent towards understanding international education.

Starting from block one, my experience has led me to the conclusion that students are the same. Kids are kids. That goes for every student, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or whatever geopolitical boundary they might find themselves in. The same needs, ambitions and thirst to learn can be found in every school. Even though students may be similar however, school systems are obviously different. How we provide for needs, ambitions and thirsts vary. Now that the year has come to a close, I have had some time to take a more holistic and in-depth look at my time being a part of the Malaysian education system. Here is a brief overview of some of my findings.

Form 1 English Camp, ages 12-13

Form 1 English Camp “ROCK”, ages 12-13

Let me first be clear that commonalities are everywhere between the Malaysian and American systems. And from a political standpoint education holds the same weight.  Malaysia is a country that loves its children and has made education principally a public good, championed by Prime Minister Mahathir in 1996, and is committed to opening the avenues of education to all people.  Many strides have been taken even this year to level the educational playing field across regions, race and gender. In fact, the number of woman and girls in all levels of school now exceed those of men and boys, thus making them the most gender equal system of education in the Muslim world. However, a number of differences are still glaring.

High Stakes Testing:

Saying that students are essentially the same everywhere means that with their strengths also comes their weaknesses. Accountability is an issue that all students struggle with. Consequently, how best to make students accountable for their own learning and behavior is a major task that schools must undertake.

Students performing their end-of-the-year test

Students performing their end-of-the-year test

In America, standardized tests are a common tool for gauging student’s achievement, but they don’t often create accountability at the student level. Meaning, the term “high stakes testing” usually applies to, and has the greatest ramifications, on teachers, school districts and States. Rarely do standardized test hold students accountable for their own learning achievement in the U.S. With college admissions tests like the ACT or SAT being the exception, students don’t generally study for standardized tests like Michigan’s MME or Iowa’s ITBS for example. These tests have a purpose other than holding individual students accountable; they hold teachers, school districts and States accountable. Most students don’t remember their scores (I sure don’t) as they don’t calculate into your cumulative GPA and aren’t looked at by institutions of higher education. This is not the case in Malaysia.

“High Stakes Testing” in Malaysia is the sole gage of student achievement and accountability. Teacher based, or school based, or even State based tests are very rare if not nonexistent. The students entire year, or more, as well as their grades depend on a series of standardized tests: the PMR for students in Form 3 (ages 12-14), the SPM for students in Form 5 (ages 16-17) and the STPM for students in pre-university Form 6 (ages 19-20). And yes, for those keeping score at home there are essentially no significant tests for students age 12, 15, or 18.

This emphasis on testing certainly holds students accountable for their performance and at the same time these tests scores provide a common thread from student, to school, to district and the state when it comes to accountability. The idea is to have a uniform system of tests so that all students can be evaluated equally and districts and states are held to the same standards nationally. This tool for all-encompassing accountability is a carryover from the British system; many government institutions are very similar in likeness to those established by the British in the 1950’s. That being said, however, as I recall studying at Liverpool University in 2011, students in many secondary schools do not give their standardized test has much stress because they are coupled with teacher given grades at the end of each year. In this sense Malaysia’s system might be slightly more antiquated, in that, very little diversity in assessment is given.  As a result the whole of the academic year, lessons, after school activities and competitions of every kind, are geared towards this testing period. And as you might guess, these testing weeks are extremely tense and essentially shut down the school for all students, as the ensuing results hold life altering ramifications for students, and substantial rewards OR punishments for schools.

Corporal Punishment: 

A more visceral difference can be seen when it comes to holding students accountable for their behavior. In the United States, incentive based education theory took roots in the in the 1980’s and 90’s, and by-in-large is the commonly accepted form of promoting good behavior and accountability. Though near extinct in the U.S., corporal punishment is exceedingly common in the developing world, particularly Southeast Asia. It was not uncommon to see a student, usually male, being hit. This type of reprimand is cultural and generally excepted, but its obviously quite upsetting when observed by the Western eye.  Books, canes and open palms are used often to make sure students are thoroughly humiliated enough to prevent whatever offense they performed from happening again. This was a particularly difficult issue for me to address, but despite scientific studies that disprove such punishment as effective, this was a practice steeped in tradition and had staunch proponents. It did, however, provide a powerful effect on good student behavior in large assembly settings

Teacher Responsibilities: 

Teachers in the "Bilik Guru", Teachers Lounge at SMK Maran

Teachers in the “Bilik Guru”, Teachers Lounge at SMK Maran

The responsibilities of the teacher are another major difference. The teacher’s role as a vehicle of information through creativity is minimized, and the teacher’s role as an administrator of State produced information and lessons are enlarged. Essentially every teacher’s class is audited by higher administration and, therefore, teachers are exceedingly accountable to the performance of their classes, however, they are not often given the creative capacity to make lessons exciting, timely, or applicable.

Teachers are also public servants, meaning that they are subject to political occurrences and often propelled or restrained by political opinions. During the 2013 parliamentary elections this became very clear. But as a part of being a public servant teachers are also bound by the appointments of the Ministry of Education. Teachers are placed where there is need, or where ever it makes political sense. But very often teachers are placed at a schools without consultation and against their wishes, much like Foreign Service officers or military members. In this way, great distances often separate young families. (I once met a man who drove 3 hours to school everyday because his wife was sick at home in Melaka, over 300 km away!)

The last, and most unique difference is that teachers are responsible for traveling form class to class. Again, this scheduling nuance is a carryover from the British collegiate system, even though Secondary schools in the UK now have teachers with their own established classrooms. In Malaysia, students are streamed into classes based on proficiency or academic interest (which of course is based solely on standardized tests) and the teachers for each subject travel to the appropriate classes. Therefore, subjects are not individual to the students; no student has a purely unique schedule. But this, however, does mean that every teacher has a highly individualized schedule. This makes teacher-to-teacher scheduling conflicts devastating. Rescheduling is prevalent and new schedules are extremely hard to make. Other than being exhausting (teachers walk from building to building in 100 degree weather) this also means that students spend a large amount of unmonitored time in their classrooms. The major benefit of this method, however, is that it allows ample planning time for teachers, but this does not make their day less hectic by any means.


Students painting Mr. Adeeb’s face at English Camp.

Differences are abundant, and these notes only skim the surface, but more than anything else I have learned this year that schools simply try to implement methods in order to drive upward mobility, foster a love for learning and teach accountability. Since the majority of our daily struggle is in navigating our selfish impulses, it’d be wise for us to set up social institutions that just flat-out make it easier for us to be well and do good. Great schools are the best way to do this, and comparing various schools and multiple methods of education might be the best way to improve our educational world.

Decorating our classrooms with English words of inspiration

Decorating our classrooms with English words of inspiration



Posted on January 27, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Michael,

    I’m Alexis Sears – a senior at Hope College. I found out about your Fulbright grant and blog through Dr. Cunningham, as I applied for the same grant this year. I have really enjoyed and appreciated reading about your experiences! Today I found out that I passed the first round of selection! I wanted to ask you when you found out that passed the final round? I hear it can be as late as June?

    Thank you for all your help!

    Alexis Sears

    • Alexis,

      Thanks for connecting. You can probably expect to hear from MACEE before May. I heard by March but many in my cohort did not get word until as late as June. It will depend on the number of grants and the competition of the year though so just be patient.
      Email me if you have any more direct questions! You can get it from Dr. Cunningham.


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