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School assessments, usually through examinations in Malaysia (and most of the world) serve two purpose: external signalling tool and quality assurance. In Malaysia, both are combined into three, terminal examinations (four if you count STPM). The United States, through the No Child Left Behind Act, does something similar:

One of the striking features about NCLB is the primitive evaluation mechanism it employs. It’s pure defect-finding: measuring the percentages of kids of different types who fail to achieve some standard, as measured by standardized tests. Henry Ford would recognize it. W. Edwards Deming would be appalled by it.

Statistical quality assurance depends on sampling, not census inspection; on paying attention to the entire range of outcomes, not just whether a given outcome meets or fails to meet some standard; and on process. And it is continuous and interactive rather than purely retrospective. In Deming’s world, the purpose of quality assurance is to feed back information about processes and their outcomes to operators so the processes can be changed in real time.

In schools, teacher-set tests, which may or may not approach the ministry-set terminal examinations in standards, is used for quality assurance. On a teacher-level, the information can be useful (especially if the aim is to maximize examination results at the end) – but if we move away from an exams-based system, such testing is meaningless. Testing for understanding and comprehension, tests tell very little – but other forms of assessment can be quite expensive. Instead:

Applying statistical QA to education would involve:

– Selecting a sample of students for high-quality, expensive testing rather than settling for the level of observation we can afford to do on every student.

– Using information about the whole range of performance rather than fixating on an arbitrary cutoff.

– Taking measurements all through the school year, not just at the end, and getting the results back to the teachers promptly.

There’s really no excuse for running our educational system on the management principles of 1920.

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