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Education Ministry studying Matsec exams system revision

"The examination board and the government have to ensure that the examinations remain valid and reliable measures of achievement that maintain the necessary standards that are acceptable locally and internationally" - Education Ministry spokesman

"The examination board and the government have to ensure that the examinations remain valid and reliable measures of achievement that maintain the necessary standards that are acceptable locally and internationally" - Education Ministry spokesman

As students hold their breath and wait to hear whether they have made it into sixth form, many hope that the tough Matsec examinations did not hold them back.

Students contacted by The Times said the Matsec (Matriculation and Secondary Education Certificate) Sec (equivalent to O Level) exams were on average harder than the equivalent foreign exams, such as the London and GCE (General Certificate of Education).

"Matsec is much harder," said a 16-year-old student who sat for her Sec exams and another added: "It's like they're trying to catch you out". Another young student, who agreed that Matsec was more difficult, believed that this "prepared you more".

While some teachers agree with the popular student view that Matsec was harder, others think the issue merely boils down to a "different method of examination", a view shared by the Matsec examination board.

Board chairman Frank Ventura explained that the papers at Sec level cater for a very wide range of difficulty to address different candidates' range of achievement through a choice between Paper IIA and Paper IIB.

The Education Ministry cautioned against generalising with sweeping statements that Matsec exams are harder and noted that Matsec exams included a wide range of exams at three levels: Sec, Intermediate and Advanced.

(One must note that the number of students who sit for foreign exams at Intermediate or Advanced level is minimal. According to the Examinations Department Analysis of 2007 Examinations, during last year's summer exams 3,490 students sat for London O Level and only 135 for the A level; 7,906 students sat for Sec exams and 2,616 sat for the Matriculation certificate).

"It is important not to fall in the trap of overgeneralisations and oversimplifications. Attention is given to the way these examinations affect our students. For this reason, a number of experts have been requested to carry out a review of the Matsec examinations system. This review is being considered by the ministry with a view to implementing any measures to improve upon the system for the benefit of our students and the education system as a whole," a ministry spokesman said.

"The important point to be made is that, while there may be pressure to reduce the content and, possibly, the level of examinations, on the one hand, the examination board and the government have to ensure that the examinations remain valid and reliable measures of achievement that maintain the necessary standards that are acceptable locally and internationally."

Students' say

While the number of students who sit for Matsec exams increased over the years, the number sitting for foreign exams dropped, the ministry spokesman said.

Students who sat for their O Level exams this year seemed to find Sec exams generally harder than other foreign exams they sat for.

A 16-year-old girl explained that she sat for 10 Sec exams and three London papers. "I sat for London's Italian and English because I knew that Matsec is harder and I wanted to continue studying the subjects in sixth form... It's known that Matsec tends to push us more and they're much harder than foreign exams," she said.

Agreeing with this, her friend explained that she used the same reasoning when she sat for London's Accounts. "I finished the London exam with no problems but Matsec was a headache. Having said that, Matsec prepare you more," she said.

Another student, who chose to only sit for Matsec exams, was disappointed because he got the same grades as a friend who was favoured because she had London exams.

"It's not fair. With Matsec at least you are comparing like with like so it is unfair to give priority to students who sat for an extra exam that is known to be easier anyway."

Two other students, who sat for both Matsec and foreign examinations, also agreed that Matsec was harder. "It's like they're trying to catch you out," they said.

Teachers' say

Teachers seem to have mixed feelings about students' perception. However, one Maths teacher did agree that Matsec tried to "catch out students" due to the way the paper was worded.

"As such, the question-by-question difficulty level is not that different for one who knows Maths well like a teacher. However, the way the Matsec questions are worded can be tricky and complicated, leading to students labelling the paper as difficult."

A Maltese teacher agreed that, in general, Matsec papers were harder as the standard expected were higher. When it came to Maltese, however, he said he agreed that the Matsec exam should be recognised over foreign ones because it was the national language.

A physics teacher did not think Matsec was harder, adding that it was merely "a different method of examining". Foreign exams expect students to use their mind more by applying their knowledge whereas, in the past, Matsec asked them to spill out what they learnt. This year Matsec changed its approach and many students found it difficult, she said.

An English teacher believed that Matsec's various papers were "a plus as students have a greater chance of passing". She believed that more priority should be given to course work. "It's not fair that students are tested on the performance of a few hours especially at that age."

Sixth Forms' views

The issue of recognition of qualifications falls within the remit of particular institutions and is not determined by the Matsec board, a spokesman for the Education Ministry said.

Two of Malta's leading sixth forms - De La Salle and St Aloysius colleges - said they treated Matsec exams with the equal weighting as foreign exams except in the case of Italian, Maltese, Religion and social studies where only Sec exams were accepted.

When contacted by The Times, both sixth forms said they did not favour students who sat for foreign exams apart from Sec. They both use a point system to determine which students will be accepted into their schools.

De La Salle headmaster John Portelli said entry depended entirely on the student's merit. "A point system is used for selection purposes. It is the overall points obtained that determine one's place."

St Aloysius rector Fr Patrick Magro said his sixth form also used a transparent point system and published the workings. "The advantage of this system is that it is transparent. The disadvantage is that students are selected mainly on academic performance," he said, adding he would like to introduce a system "where not only academic achievement is valued but also other achievements the student has obtained".

Asked how much weight was given to the student's school-leaving certificate, Fr Magro said it gave an idea of how the student usually behaved at school and his/her achievements that were not necessarily academic.

Dr Portelli said he "would like to give some weight to the school-leaving certificate yet not all schools give an indication of a student's conduct in the school-leaving certificate they issue. Therefore, it would be unfair on those students attending a school where conduct is mentioned in the certificates they issue if we were to consider their school leaving certificate while we cannot check the conduct of other students where such an indication is not provided."

Questions were also sent to Junior College but replies were not received as the headmaster was away.

The Matsec examination board's workings

The level of difficulty of Matsec exams is determined by various factors that are considered carefully by paper setters, Matsec examinations board chairman, Frank Ventura, said.

He explained that examination papers that were recognised outside Malta are drawn up by paper setters' panels that set out a specification grid that follows the scheme of assessment and the subject content of the syllabus.

The scheme of assessment and other explanatory notes in the syllabus specify the exam components (such as written papers, oral, practical, coursework) and the weighting of the skills that include knowledge by simple recall, understanding, application of knowledge and higher order skills like analysis, synthesis, evaluation.

An independent paper reviser for each subject and level then worked out papers and reviewed them from the point of view of a student. Finally, the papers were vetted by Matsec officers.

Prof. Ventura said that, in drawing up the exam papers, the difficulty of papers set by foreign boards was not taken into account. Papers at Sec level catered for a very wide range of difficulty by giving a choice between Paper IIA and Paper IIB.

Asked whether anything was done to ensure standardisation between Matsec and foreign exam papers, he said that, before speaking about standardisation, one has to see that one was comparing like with like.

"One cannot compare an exam, which consists solely of written papers, with one that has written papers and oral and listening comprehension components or another that has a certain weighting of marks for school-based assessment," he stressed.

"One also has to look closely at the cohort of students sitting for the exam because exams at this level are norm referenced, that is, the result of a particular candidate depends on the performance of the other candidates sitting for the examination."

Asked if any members of the Matsec board were allowed to give private lessons, he said teachers who gave private lessons were precluded from being paper setters or markers for Matsec examinations.

A breakdown of students' Matsec results for 2007 and before can be viewed on home.um.edu.mt/ matsec/.

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