How low can you go? 

It is common knowledge among teachers that a student who keeps flunking the school test can actually get a decent grade in the SPM exam.

Leanne Goh, The Star 

What is the passing mark for an SPM subject? Many teachers estimate it to be seriously low for some papers, way lower than the school’s benchmark.

WHEN I last wrote that more than 100,000 students, or close to a quarter of those sitting for the SPM English, were at risk of leaving school without an SPM certificate, the response was unexpected.

“Ms Goh,” I was told, “don’t worry, the marks may be lowered even further to allow many to pass.”

And that view, I was surprised to learn, was shared by many.

Teachers who have been teaching upper secondary students as well as examiners who have been grading the exam scripts for many years let on that the passing marks are not all they seem to be.

We were discussing the passing grade in view of the new ruling that effective 2016, a pass in SPM English is compulsory for students to graduate from school with an SPM certificate. This is in addition to the long-standing compulsory pass in Bahasa Melayu, and a pass in History that comes into effect for this year’s SPM candidates.

The passing mark for school tests is 40% but it is deemed significantly lower for public exams.

It is common knowledge among teachers that a student who keeps flunking the school test can actually get a decent grade in the SPM exam.

In an anecdote shared by a teacher, he said his colleague once told a school prefect: “If you pass your Add Maths, I’ll chop off my head!” And the prefect did better than just scrape through; he got a credit.

An examiner of 20 years for one of the SPM Maths papers, who has since retired, shares that the mode was always 10 to 20 class marks, that is, the majority scored between 10 and 20 marks, creating a skewed graph instead of a bell curve.

This has not been reflective in the actual results simply because it is possible for the grading system to be “adjusted” to show higher passes.

Examiners, who are usually teachers with many years of experience, are able to estimate or extrapolate based on the number of passes announced by the ministry against the students’ marks.

One SPM Add Maths examiner believes that the passing rate for the subject could be as low as the mid-teens based on how his students perform in school. And teachers are always sharing notes among themselves after the exam results are out.

Though public exam grading is kept under wraps and examiners are sworn to secrecy, teachers say that they have come to the conclusion that the passing grade for certain subjects could be as low as 20 marks, or possibly lower, especially for Maths.

“Although it’s shrouded in secrecy, we believe there is some manipulation of marks because we hear the same thing so many times from so many sources,” shares a teacher who is close to retirement.

This perception is widespread and an examiner describes it as a “trust deficit in the marking system”, despite the involvement of external moderators.

Those who have been examiners for many years see a pattern: the overall quality of the answer scripts has consistently been declining; the questions have been less challenging; and the structure easier to score. In some cases, the more difficult topics have also been removed from the syllabus.

The conclusion: It gets easier to score and harder to fail.

Is it any wonder then that we keep reading of more and more students scoring a string of As and yet the global benchmarking of our students is at the bottom third among 74 countries?

If we’re aiming to achieve top one-third in the benchmarking in 15 years, we cannot afford to deceive ourselves by dumbing down our own exams and the grading of public exams.

“We have Form Four students with an ‘A’ for PMR Maths who can’t even do basic operations. If an ‘A’ is nothing, imagine what a ‘D’ is!’’ says a teacher friend.

A pertinent question is whether our grades are comparable to that of other countries offering qualifications equivalent to O-levels. Is a pass or an “A” in Malaysia the same as that in the UK or Singapore?

A retired education officer from Examinations Syndicate says “yes” to the many doubting Thomases out there and stands by the integrity of the marking and grading of the papers.

He says that examiners’ perception is based on quantitative measures (marks, graphs, etc) while the ministry also takes into consideration qualitative measures (more subjective elements).

“Sample scripts of excellent, average and weak answers are put on a table and examined thoroughly by examiners from Cambridge and examination bodies from other countries,” he shares.

Besides, he adds, it is in the interest of all parties to ensure that a student who applies to study in a British university, for example, has grades that are acceptable regardless of his country of origin.

But there seems to be more ways than one to a decent grade.

Take the instance of the SPM History. Now that it has to be a compulsory pass, an additional Paper 3 has been created as an “open book test”.

Students can bring in their textbooks or any other references; teachers can guide students on themes that will be tested; and students will be informed one month before the exam on the themes to be tested.

One of the objectives of this paper is to prevent a zero score. It’ll now be harder for a student to fail with this potential “bonus” of 20% for paper 3!

Why set ambitious goals if we’re going to create crutches along the way?

Without Paper 3, the failure rate among last year’s candidates was 19.7%.

So what’s in store for a pass in SPM English?

Teachers are already speculating on ways to shore up the scores, considering that a pass has to be achieved in three short years when 70% of our 60,000 English teachers who sat for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test performed poorly.

Teachers are asking whether the oral test would be one avenue to help students meet the passing grade.

Teachers generally feel that three years may be too short a time to effectively bring about the change sought.

While on one hand, students need that push and motivation to work on that compulsory pass, the reality is that their environment remains static over the next three years.

If the family, community and school offer little exposure to the use of the language, how will that effect change?

It is a shame that the progress made with the teaching of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI) was halted with the reversal of the policy.

“PPSMI should have stayed. I could see a real difference in my students,” says an English teacher in a school in Perak.

A new complication to SPM English pass in 2016 is the “school-based assessment”.

With the PMR abolished from next year, students currently in Forms One and Two are being assessed at school. Next year’s Form Three students will sit for centrally set exam but the papers will be graded by their respective schools.

When they reach Form Five in 2016, they will have to pass their SPM English.

The problem is, no one knows yet what percentage of their grade will come from the school-based results, benchmarked at 40% for a pass.

“It’s like asking you to get into the car and drive but only telling you the destination later. Maybe they’ll even tell you to turn back halfway as in the case of PPSMI,” says the teacher-in-the-dark.

With things still unclear, there are concerns that the first batch to face the compulsory pass may be the casualties, especially among rural kids.

Let’s hope the path to be taken will be clearer soon and kinks in the system ironed out. And grades are not lowered to meet cosmetic achievements.

The integrity of the exam and grades awarded must hold us in good stead against international benchmarking, otherwise it will be a mockery of what we set out to achieve.


Note: A few months back, a DAP MP asked the Education Minister to state the passing marks for English, Math and Science subjects. He received a written reply in Parliament that it is under the OSA and cannot be revealed.