A FAMILIAR refrain among teachers that seems to be getting louder with each passing school academic year goes something like this. “Why are there increasing numbers of students who after achieving strings of A’s in their latest public examination, are found to lack the skills and knowledge for the take-off point at the next level of their education.”
I hear Additional Mathematics teachers lamenting about their students who have problems with solving simple equations despite having scored an A for Mathematics in their recent PMR examination.
I listen to English teachers deploring the error-ridden essays handed in by their “A -for- English” students.
“How am I supposed to teach them the more advanced stuff when they have not even grasped the basics?” asks one Mathematics teacher.
They are the ones who have come in with a “B” minimum, she says. She also wonders how the teachers with the “C” and “D” students are coping.”
“You don’t want to know,” replies her colleague who teaches English.
“ Here I am having to talk about literary devices and teach a 200-page novel to students who can barely read and write in English.”
Of course all these students have been certified through public examinations as having achieved the competence required to be in their present level and to follow the prescribed syllabus.
To someone who is not a school teacher, it may be a little puzzling.
How is it that students who possess documents to validate their “excellence” in a certain subject, are later found to possess little more than average competence in the same subject.
Over the years however, school teachers have accepted the situation.
We are of course extremely pleased when we hear about the increased standard of examination performance by our students and the many “A’s” they have achieved, but deep down there is sometimes an uncomfortable feeling that not all of that achievement is valid, when we measure it against the true requirements of the curriculum.
Why the fuss?
We reassure ourselves that after all, our job is to teach and do the best we can, and if someone else in higher authority chooses to stamp a label of competence on what we intrinsically know to be incompetence, why make a big fuss
And if these students are later on at the next level found to lack the skills required, let the teachers at the next level deal with it.
As far as the school and the system are concerned, we have more than done our part by raising the percentages.
Furthermore, there really is nothing much to worry about if we recall the previous year’s results.
Didn’t the whole bunch of students who never achieved a score of more than 20% in any of their school-based examinations finally make the grade when the SPM results were announced? And, some even passed with credits!
But sometimes we forget to ask ourselves what exactly “making the grade” means. What does a simple “pass” signify and what level of expertise is a student supposed to have achieved if he obtains “excellent” grades?
Perhaps there are some who have become so dazzled by the brilliance surrounding the “A” letter that they have forgotten what an “A” really should mean, or, for that matter what the letters like a “B”, “C” or “F” really mean.
Although we laugh to ourselves when we see evaluation systems awarding good results to students whom we know are nowhere near that standard, we sometimes feel that perhaps it’s time for us to lower our standards too.
So, rather than allow someone to actually fail, when he fails to reach the competence level, we lower the bars of the competence level.
At times, we devise rather ingenious ways and strategies to beat the examination system and ensure our pass percentages for the subject.
A helping hand
Pupils who can’t string a sentence together are encouraged to memorise or copy chunks of model “for all purposes” passages, and the barely numerate are shown how to rely on statistical chances in selecting answers for multiple choice questions.
After that, all we can do is keep our fingers crossed, and hope that the laws governing probability and the students’ 2B pencils will not let us down.
We feel jubilant when they actually do pass, and with all the emphasis on schools performances, it is so easy to convince ourselves that what we are doing is indeed the way to go.
After all, enabling students to perform well in their examinations is by itself a form of motivation for them, and helps boost the image of the school.
Whether they actually qualify is another question and that is not for us to answer.
Apart from those who have learning disabilities and special needs, students who are placed in a certain level or grade should have genuinely acquired the knowledge and skills to qualify for that level.
Otherwise, they should not be there.
The system that promotes students “automatically” regardless of their competence levels, or lowers bars to allow just anyone to cross over, will end up with students who cannot perform the tasks required at the level they are in.
This is probably the reason why we still have students in Form Five who can’t read and write. Or students sitting in the first Science Class in Form Four, after achieving A’s for Maths and Science, who are still unable to solve simple quadratic equations.
We teachers, are getting tired of the situation. We don’t want to hear anymore reports telling us about the increasing number of straight A’s students and confirming that examination performances are getting better and better.
Yes, we do have students at highest achievement levels who are really some of the best, but we also have those who shouldn’t be there.
We also have many students who don’t have the basics for the level they have been placed at.
Would it really be so terrible to allow someone to fail when they genuinely did not make the grade?
Why are we so afraid to let our students fail an examination when they deserve to?
Why can’t we formally acknowledge the actual level students are at academically, rather than dish out unmerited passes, and then deplore them for their lack of skills and knowledge in their “promoted state”?
Perhaps those who are convinced that they are “helping” students and doing the system a favour by lowering bars and allowing students to score better grades then what they deserve, need to do some serious rethinking.
How useful is this kind of help when it actually abets the culture of mediocrity and the formation of a generation of people who will be satisfied with being average, or who have no realistic estimation of their own capabilities?
If everything is eventually going to be handed to you on a platter, then there is no real need to jump high or run fast or even to think hard.
In our reluctance to face failure squarely in the eye, we have not allowed our students an opportunity to fight failure, defeat it and subsequently become stronger.
In lowering achievement standards and allowing grades that are convenient to us, we are doing a great disservice to society because we are allowing the incompetent to be in positions where only the competent should be.
And what is more frightening is that this will eventually be reflected in the kind of leadership that we will have in the future.