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Take extra care in setting school exam question papers

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Teachers owe it to the parents and guardians of their schoolchildren to make an extra effort to produce better quality examination papers, writes Khong Kah Yeong.

The school examination season will be around the corner soon. Certain teachers will be charged with setting the question papers for their subjects and coming up with their relevant marking schemes.

A few of these teachers may be familiar with parts of the whole process of the conduct of an examination because of their work with our national examination bodies. But the majority will certainly not be exposed to the long and meticulous process (starting from the setting of questions to the end product of producing the grades and results) as used by certain overseas bodies well-known for their international examinations..

Nevertheless, I do hope that the teachers setting the questions will take due care to ensure that their questions are clear in their intentions, relevant to the facts taught, and valid to the standard of knowledge and command of the language of their students. The question papers also need to free of errors to be fair to the students so as to produce results that are reflective of their knowledge and ability to think logically and to draw correct conclusions.

To illustrate the above, consider the following questions (slightly exaggerated for emphasis) on, say, the life cycle of mosquitoes:

Why are stagnant pools of water bad for the breeding of mosquitoes?
Does this mean that stagnant pools of water will stop the breeding of mosquitoes? Or that stagnant pools of water will result in more breeding grounds for mosquitoes?

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What do mosquitoes eat? How is this relevant to the topic? And “eat”?

Describe the reproductive cycle of the ectoparasite of the culicidae specie? Ectoparasite? Culicidae? Aren’t these terms more suitable for university students studying insects?

Describe the live circle of a mosquito. Live circle? Or life cycle?

It is not uncommon to have a teacher going from classroom to classroom to correct errors in their question papers when the examination is in progress. While to err is human but to do the correction half an hour after a paper has started is unfair to the students and penalises them. In some instances, it may even result in the students having to re-write their whole answer to that question, simply because of a change of a word in the question.

Take, for example, a question may be printed as “Write a composition on the common road accidents in your area”. But the teacher then goes around with 10 minutes or less of left of the allotted time to say the question should read “Write a composition on the prevention of road accidents in your area.”!

Should the teacher not check for errors of omission or typing at the time the questions were typed, again after they have been printed and once more before they were given out to the various classes? They must remember that the teacher supervising a class for that paper may not be knowledgeable in that subject to spot any error. More often than not, they do not care after giving out the papers as required.

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On the need for a more accommodating marking scheme to cater for answers that are logical and factually correct but are not included in the original marking scheme, there was a previous comment in this publication on it.

I need only add that teachers must always remember that students especially those who are more intelligent or have a good home environment are exposed to other sources of knowledge that are both reputable and reliable, and they do not need to depend on their textbooks nor their teachers for information. Hence, their answers may not be word for word from their textbooks, nor in the answer scheme. After all, is the examination a test of the student’s ability to apply what they have learned to come to a logical answer or is it a test to see if a student can guess correctly what is set in the marking scheme?

The grading of the students’ results in almost all if not all schools is pre-determined. A score of so many marks and above is graded A, between so many marks and so many marks B and so on. This system does not take into account the quality of the questions set and hence the actual overall performance of the students for that paper or subject.

Ideally the teachers should look at the total performance of the students in a paper, find the mean (average) score and from there set the grading marks with the top 10% or so for the A+ grade and about 60% the C grade and so on. But then, that might be to too much to ask of teachers who are not statistically minded nor trained in the science of testing.

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Even so, these teachers owe it to the parents and guardians of their schoolchildren to make an extra effort to produce better quality examination papers and a more sensible approach to marking the answers from their charges so that the results obtained by the students are more reflective of their thinking skills and their ability to draw correct conclusions. Surely not of their ability to parrot the text from their school books?

Khong Kah Yeong is an Aliran newsletter subscriber.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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