Q&A: Dilla Kamal (teacher) on primary school assessments

Please tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Nurfadzilah Nek Kamal and I have worked in education since 2008 as a primary school teacher. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in TESL from UIA in 2008 and received my M.A in Applied Linguistics from UUM in 2016. My master’s degree research was a contrastive study on young Malay learners’ pronunciation of glottal stops in both Bahasa Melayu and English and its effect on one another. My teaching interest focuses mainly on Listening and Speaking using arts and craft. (Editor’s note: check out some of Dilla’s work here!)

What are your personal views on removing standardised assessments in Tahap 1? Why?

“I failed my exams in some subjects, but my friend passed. Now he’s an engineer in Microsoft, and I am the owner.” That quote was reportedly said by none other than Bill Gates, founder of the world’s largest software business and is often used to validate how examinations do not necessarily define one’s worth, or even predict one’s future success.

As someone who has been teaching lower primary for more than a decade, I agree that standardised exams have served more as a punitive device rather than a method that provides meaningful information to assist student learning. Even if it does, standardised exams are often tainted by time constraints, unhealthy culture of rankings and placements, and the reinforcement of inequality among students.

The nature of standardised exams is also the opposite of what we are encouraged to do in the classroom. During exams, students aren’t allowed to help each other to solve the given problems because standardised exams prioritize individual achievement and disregard any collaborative learning.

Many teachers like me would agree that the abolishment of exams for lower primary students is a change that is long overdue. For too long, our children have been on a high-speed train catching up with the syllabus, mindlessly drilling and preparing for exams. It is time to take a pause and focus on what truly matters, which is finding joy in learning.

What is your take on the pros and cons of removing standardised assessments?

In case no one realized, the removal of standardised exams will free up about four weeks of curriculum time in a year. The additional four weeks will enable teachers and students to explore existing topics better. I see this as an opportunity to execute STEM or project-based learning in my lessons, or even remedial projects for the children who are left behind in literacy skills. Since standardised tests are out of the picture, there could be more hands-on learning or investigative lessons without having to worry about what might be tested in the examination. Classroom time that was used to teach test-taking strategies can also now be spent on teaching kindness and empathy in our classrooms because just like respect, kindness and empathy must be taught. Since the pressure to perform well in standardised exam is lifted, my students and I can now focus on giving our best performance in the classroom.

Undeniably, there are the downsides to not having any standardised assessment in the first three years of schooling. Students, parents and even teachers may take advantage of the situation and use this as an excuse to not push for their best. The lack of standardised exams has to be made up for in the form of solid formative assessments in the classroom, but not all teachers are capable of doing that due to large classroom sizes.

How much exposure do teachers have to non-standardised assessments? Are the teachers ready?

I personally believe that teachers are more than ready to implement classroom-based assessment in replacement of the summative assessment, because teachers have been using formative assessments in the classroom to provide feedback since the beginning of time. However, I do not deny the challenges that we are facing, especially in the first few years of its implementation. We are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t and this will definitely take time getting used to. Large classroom size can be a hindrance for teachers to carry out a thorough assessment and the possibility of students not getting enough or necessary feedback is high. Classroom size has been the major cause of why standardised tests have been favoured for so long because ideally, standardised tests are easier to carry out than formative tests when it comes to large classroom size.

I admit that some school administrators tend to nitpick at how teachers manage their formative assessment data, and some teachers, while they are given full autonomy to choose how they go about doing these assessments, have no confidence in their own decisions and rely heavily on what others do without taking their own teaching style and students’ learning styles into consideration. These are the problems that we teachers need to sort through. However, rest assured that we are taking baby steps. I think we are definitely getting there. We have been having gradual exposure to practising formative assessments ever since PBS (school-based assessment) was introduced in 2011 and I believe teachers have only their students’ best interests in carrying out these assessments.

What should assessment be like?

For the first few years of schooling, the assessments should be exactly what the ministry has ruled for now. There should only be continuous, low-stakes formative assessments done in the classroom. To ensure this, teachers need all the support they can get from parents and school admins to ensure effective execution of formative assessments. Studies have shown that formative assessments actually help students to better prepare for summative exams, something that they will eventually have to face once they enter the upper primary level. We are not disregarding the importance or benefits of standardised exams but rather it is about placing focus on our utmost priority, which is making learning meaningful without the necessary stress. Assessment for learning is what is needed more than assessment of learning at this stage of early education.

Students’ performance should not be compared among individuals but rather it should be measured based on the progress they make. Students should be taught that their biggest competitor is none other than themselves. Students should not just be credited for their academic progress but also for their attitude, effort, and creativity.

If someone asked you those questions, how would you answer? Share your thoughts below, and please remember to follow our comments policy. (It is not compulsory to include your name, email, and website in order to comment.)

For more information about primary school assessments, see our Pengenalan post, “How should primary school students be tested?”, and for a selection of comments from our readers, see our Apa Kata post. For even more comments, visit our Facebook page. And look out for our final synopsis post about primary school assessments next week. Thank you!

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