Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Don’t make a mockery of MUET Part 1

Don’t make a mockery of MUET
Posted on December 19, 2011 by psbtpnsarawak
Sunday December 18, 2011

AS A newly-retired English language teacher who has taught MUET ( Malaysia University English Test) classes for more than a decade, I have always subscribed to the view that decisions taken about educational matters should always be guided by the best interests of the students and not sacrificed on the altar of financial gains.

Thus when I recently learnt that the test would be conducted three times next year — March, July and November — and the registration fee raised from RM60 to RM100, I am compelled to offer my views on many of the issues affecting the MUET classes.

To begin with, logic will dictate that many school candidates will now choose to sit for the test in March to secure a good Band score as fast as possible (which is what many Lower Six students are going to do ), failing which they can then choose to sit for the exam in July and November to secure higher scores and in the process, swell the coffers of the Malaysian Examinations Council (MEC).

And that is what administering the MUET three times a year will bring about — making a mockery of the whole purpose of introducing MUET in the first place.

So now, instead of the recommended 80 hours of MUET sessions, many schools will have to make do with less than 35 hours. Leaving aside the question on whether such a move is practical or wise the issue should be: What good will such a plan bring about when students are allowed to sit for their MUET exam so soon? Clearly, a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Unhappy situation

As matters now stand, the students are being given the option to sit for the MUET in May instead of November creating an unhappy situation whereby after the test, MUET teachers have a hard time getting students to stay engaged in their MUET lessons. In previous years, to keep my English classes going after the MUET in May, I would teach my students Phonetics and Business Communication, among other things. However there were students who upon receiving their MUET results in July, were not keen to follow the MUET lessons, especially if they had secured Bands 5 and 4. This in effect meant that I only had to teach the group of students who registered to resit their MUET exam in November. With Lower Six students now allowed to sit for their MUET exam in March, students would be left to their own devices once the exams are over.

They would most likely use their MUET periods to revise their other STPM subjects.

And such unfortunate circumstances have conspired to make MUET teachers the butt of jokes and resentment in schools for allegedly getting paid for having such a “good” time in school, no thanks to the flexible MUET dates.

Having taught MUET classes for so many years, I must say the standards of marking and grading MUET papers have somewhat become inconsistent over the years.

In the early years of MUET, only two or three students would manage to secure a Band 5. Then, after some years, just like the grade inflation plaguing SPM subjects, almost half the students in the better MUET classes were able to secure Band 5. In fact, even average students were able to obtain a Band 4! And it is surprising to find that students who fared so poorly in their written English have still managed to secure a low Band 5 for the test.

The fact is that when students are able to work out most of the answers for the Reading Comprehension paper which carries 45% of the overall aggregate scores (under the old test specifications) and do moderately well in the speaking and listening components, which together carry 30% of the aggregate scores, it is still possible for them to secure a low Band 5 even if they barely pass the writing component which constitutes 25 % of the aggregate scores.

Thus, when MUET is not perceived as a reliable measure of the candidates’ English language proficiency, it has become largely optional, if considered at all, in applying for admission in local private colleges with “twinning” courses with their overseas counterparts which allocate little importance to it.

When students head to Singapore for their tertiary education, they are made to sit for the English Qualifying Test, even if they have secured a high Band 5 in MUET. This is not surprising as many applicants can’t even write a few sentences without grammatical errors!

It is a sad reflection of how the standard of English has deteriorated in schools these days.

Poor standards

Below is an example of an an opinion written by a student on whether modern advertising is a bad influence on today’s youth.

“… nowadays, when we swift on the televisyens, most of the time is for advertised the advertisement. When they watching the TV programme, the children are also watching together by them. ….Some of the business people are using a women body to advertised their product …”

Let me also point out that fine tuning the writing component by replacing Question 1, which was formerly a summary question with a question on the interpretation of data will not do any good as MUET teachers do no have the luxury of time to put their charges through an intensive course to polish up the latter’s grammar and vocabulary skills. To persist with the current writing paper is akin to putting the cart before the horse.

It would also be wise if the MEC takes note that since Question 1 in the writing component now involves statistics, some calculations and analysis of data, maintaining the 1½ hours for the paper is hardly sufficient.

Candidates will face severe time constraints in tackling the writing paper and only with constant practice can they hope to do well in the paper. Upper Six students will be hard-pressed to do well if they are allowed to take their MUET exams so early in March. The selection of examiners for MUET’s speaking component is another issue that needs to be urgently addressed. It is puzzling why so many competent MUET teachers are sidelined when it comes to appointing examiners for this component while those not at all involved in teaching MUET classes are selected.

Let me cite an example of a team leader who was not a MUET teacher overruling his junior co-examiner who was a MUET teacher, by assessing a candidate who spoke excellent English and performed impressively for both the individual presentation and group discussion task a Band 4, when it was obvious that the candidate was clearly of Band 5 or Band 6 calibre. The rationale? The team leader, dogmatically claimed that they should avoid giving candidates a high band score for speaking as far as possible, as instructed by their superiors!

This undesirable state of affairs is played out in some STPM subjects as well. It brings to mind what a Maths teacher involved in marking STPM exam scripts said about one of his co-markers who was a Chemistry graduate, and not a bona fide Maths teacher.

The latter had refused to accept a candidate’s Maths answer because the candidate had used another approach. The examiner, who was apparently more at home with Chemistry, chose to blindly follow what was in the marking scheme and penalised the poor student for securing the answer using a formula that differed from the one in the marking scheme!

Such instances are reasons why it is crucial to ensure that only competent and experienced examiners who are teaching the respective subjects be given the task of marking public exam papers which determine the academic future and career prospects of the candidates.

Anything short of that will not only affect the credibility of the marked papers, but also victimise some candidates through no fault of their own.

The rationale given for the introduction of MUET in 1999 was that undergraduates in local universities were wasting their time learning basic grammar, and therefore MUET was introduced to address the low English proficiency of students before pursuing higher education.

If that is the case, the present MUET general test specifications and MUET format do not address the poor grammar and vocabulary skills of many of the candidates. And things won’t get better with the early registration for the test when candidates simply do not have sufficient and sustained MUET lessons to improve their low language proficiency in English.

Grammar skills

There is a dire need to test grammar to ensure candidates take pains to improve their grammar and vocabulary skills and be aware of the common failings displayed in their written English. Grammar is an integral part of effective academic writing.

Thus, developing a better understanding of how individual words and groups of words work to form coherent sentences and paragraphs to construct academic texts will be useful. With knowledge born out of hard classroom experience, it is my contention that instead of the MUET general test specifications and exam, Form Six students are better off if they are given a well-crafted English course conducted by committed teachers to prepare them for entry to tertiary education. They can then be made to sit for a rigorous common English entrance examination for admission into public universities.

It is about time the MEC carried out a survey to find out if the present coursework and MUET serves to achieve the original aims. The council should not be too concerned with raising fees to swell its coffers. The MUET exam must surely be a means towards an end and, not an end by itself.


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