Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Student With 18As: Still, So What?

Written by johnleemk on 5:57:01 am Mar 13, 2007.

A couple of years back, I asked what the big fuss was about Nur Amalina Che Bakri, the student with 17A1s in the SPM. Today, it turns out some other girl — Nadiah Amirah Jamil — scored 18As in the SPM, although her 14 A1s and 4 A2s can't top Nur Amalina's "accomplishment".

The criticisms I recounted back then are still relevant. What is the point of scoring for the sake of scoring? It's trite, it's cheesy, but education is not about winning the race. It's about the process of training to win the race; we just have the race to roughly estimate who trained the best.

This unhealthy fixation with examination results has to end. Being able to score more As than anyone else doesn't make you a better student, let alone a better person. Particularly under our examination system, all it means is that you have enough time and money to waste on memorising as much utter bullshit as you possibly can.

If we had an examination system that didn't test how well you can recite definitions of moral values, or recount the spoonfed account of history everyone is given, or regurgitate the physics textbooks you had thrown at you, then maybe, just maybe, it might be worth shouting about being able to do so well. But let's face it — that doesn't describe our examination system at all.

The memorisation problem is bad enough. But much of what we learn in order to prepare for the SPM isn't even relevant to much of our further studies. I have friends studying to be doctors who tell me that virtually nothing in the SPM Physics syllabus is relevant to the A Level Physics syllabus. Last year, my economics lecturer told several of my classmates to ignore whatever they had been taught for SPM Economics.

That's how bad things have gotten. But still, if it took a real brainiac to do so well, it might still not be so embarassing to trumpet the fact that you're the most accomplished memoriser of meaningless facts in the world. But you don't have to be that much of a genius to score As.

The cut-off point for an A is often very low, because our examinations are graded on a curve — and the gradient of that curve isn't too steep. It's often far too generous, as evinced by the numbers of students every year who heave a sigh of relief after scoring an A for the first time in their lives.

Seriously — many students perform poorly in school examinations, but miraculously experience an uplifted score in public examinations. I was one of them; I hadn't scored an A for history since form one, but when I sat for the PMR at the end of form three, I surprised myself and scored an A, despite not studying for the subject at all.

Whatever the case may be, even if the exams at this level were serious, rigorous and truly challenged one's ability to reason and think, their value would be limited. At best, they are predictors of future success, and not indicators of success in themselves. An academic can be poorly suited to the vagaries of the real world, and vice-versa.

If one wants to go by academic performance in measuring where you stand, the best measure might be performance at the tertiary level. If you can maintain a 4.0 grade point average at the university level, it speaks a lot about your capability and proficiency. University work is a whole different cup of tea.

And yet, even then, academic success isn't exactly a very good predictor of real life success. Not many prominent leaders were top scorers in their country, or had 4.0 GPAs. Most of them had mediocre or only above average results, and some (most famously Bill Gates) didn't even finish their education. Academic records only matter for truly academic fields such as scientific research, and I don't think many people are egging their children on with cries of "Go for a tenured professorship!"

One proposal to fix all this that I understand has been rejected is to cap the number of subjects that a student can take. I disagree with this, because I think it's none of the government's business interfering with the decisions of private individuals unless these decisions harm others.

My primary reason for this disagreement, though, is that I think this won't address the root cause of the problem — our exam-obsessed culture. We have to rid ourselves of this frenzy about grades and tuition and whatnot.

I'm not downplaying the importance of education or the traditional academic route. But the current educational culture in Malaysia emphasises scoring for the sake of scoring, rather than learning for the sake of scoring. Our approach has to be recentred, and I just don't see how capping the number of subjects a student can take will do that.

As for Nadiah, I wish her all the best. She's clearly a bright student, even if the only feather in her cap so far is that ridiculous "accomplishment", and I hope her mind won't be squandered by resting on her laurels after this non-success. Exams are just the beginning, girl. In life, an A for effort but an F for achievement is still an F. Making the cut in exams, and making the cut in life, are two whole different things.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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