Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Standardised Testing, From Two Sides of the Seemingly Same Coin

Written by johnleemk on 10:10:57 am May 4, 2005.
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Okay, Malaysian students. Picture this: You're an American high school junior. Soon your first standardised test ever, the SAT is coming up. You're tense and a bit afraid, as the results will determine which college you get into. Your parents enrol you in a special class to prepare students for the SAT. Nevertheless, you face the test with little trepidation, knowing your high school education will keep you in good stead, even if it never prepared you to fill in these funny circles with a 2B pencil, as the SAT only tests you on maths and English anyway. Sounds pretty much like paradise doesn't it? Well, if you're an American student, here's the other side of the coin...

You're a 5th former in a Malaysian secondary school. Your third standardised test ever is coming up. This will be the test that determines which college you can be admitted to. Although you feel the pressure, you're extremely well prepared. After all, you've been coached for this all your life. Already in primary 1, you were trained to fill in test papers with a 2B or HB pencil. You know exactly what is expected of you and what you will be tested on in the examination. You've sat for all the practice papers and done every activity book available on the market, just like you did for your two previous standardised tests, the UPSR in primary 6 and the PMR in form 3. Your daily tuition classes are keeping you focused on your target of as many As as possible, whether or not they are relevant to your ultimate career choice.

Sounds like hell, doesn't it? Well, welcome to the life of the average urban Malaysian student.

Now, if you're a Malaysian kid, you may be wondering what this fuss is about. Well, American students sit for this test known as the SAT. It's not mandatory, and if you don't sit for it, you still graduate from high school. If you want to go to college, though, the SAT is almost certainly a must. However, the schools there do not, for the most part, focus on preparing you for this test. As you can see, although it's important, the emphasis is on providing you with a good education. Paper qualifications come second, since if you're talented, it doesn't matter what papers you have; quality speaks for itself.

In Malaysia, on the other hand, we are pretty much primed for sitting for standardised tests right up until we leave secondary school. Everyone learns how to spot what questions will come out, what will be on the test and will not be on the test, and that's pretty much what school is for. The syllabus is followed strictly and uniformly standardised. Anything that may be relevant but will not be tested is sidelined. Even if teachers do not relegate it to the corner of educational history, it is highly unlikely any students will bother to retain the information.

Having seen what the situation is like in both sides, it may surprise Malaysian students to know that Americans chafe at having to sit for the SAT. To us it seems pretty elementary, but the idea of a standardised test is foreign to American students. They are more used to being judged on their merit using an assesment by a teacher or other professional than by an objective test, which they feel unnecessarily gambles their future away. There is actually a movement to abolish the SAT in the US.

For us? Well, we're fine. But as you can see, American and Malaysian education are in two completely different leagues of their own. America emphasises education and critical thinking skills, with paperwork coming second; if you're good, you'll get the papers eventually. In Malaysia, focus is on getting your diploma/degree ASAP. The presupposition is that if you have the paper, you'll obtain the skills.

How do I know all this? Being a Malaysian student (and having attended a Chinese school, private school and national type school), I'm exceedingly familiar with how we are taught here. Having a huge network of American friends/acquaintances has also helped me obtain knowledge about what goes on over there, as has the internet. (Now you can see why I champion more non-fiction reading; it gives us a point of reference for our own lives.)


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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.

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