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Views from Malaysia: Assessments, Data and Policy-Making

The recent Capacity Development Workshop “Analyzing and Understanding Learning Assessments for Evidence-Based Policy Making”, held under the framework of the Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP) and supported with the generous contributions of the Malaysia Funds in Trust as well as Global Partnership for Education (GPE), welcomed participants from 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific Region.

©UNESCO\K. Yamada

We spoke with one of the representatives from Malaysia, Dr. Zabani bin Darus, (Head of Sector, Education Planning and Research Division, Ministry of Education Malaysia), who kindly shared his experience and understanding of learning assessments, data analysis, and policy related evidence in the Malaysian context.

1. Tell us about your background and your experience with Learning Assessments, Data Analysis, and/or Policymaking.

I started as a mathematics and science teacher at a boarding secondary school in Sabah, Malaysia. Being a teacher, learning assessments are not alien to me. As we know, assessment plays an important role in how to understand students’ learning, their motivation to learn, and how teachers teach. After teaching for nine years, I moved to the Educational Planning and Research Division (EPRD) under the Ministry of Education, Malaysia. At first I was placed at the Data Unit and then at the Research and Evaluation Sector. The latter sector conducts research for the purpose of formulating new education policies, and reviews and makes amendments to existing policies. Research conducted by this sector also provides input to educational planners, stakeholders and educational leaders for evidence-based decision-making. The sector undertakes different types of research and evaluation endeavors to ensure a wide spectrum of educational issues are addressed.

At this sector I have learnt about data, types of data, data collection instruments, data cleaning, and data analysis and interpretation. Here I learned the importance of the concept of reliability and validity. I knew how to analyze qualitative and quantitative data. I always evaluated my results by asking the following question: Do the data, tables and figures align with the research questions? Is the textual discussion clear and concise? Is the analysis of data relationships logical and perceptive? Lastly, is the statistical analysis accurately interpreted?

I learnt from experiences and from many research experts that when ‘data’ are systematically collected and analyzed, they become ‘information’; then when ‘information’ is applied to specific problems or questions, it can be used as ‘evidence’ to establish a position or course of action. However, the value of data in the first instance depends on the robustness of the approaches used to collect and then analyze and interpret them.

2. Tell us about the Malaysia experience with Learning Assessments, and using Learning Assessment data for policy and planning. What are some examples of policies and plans that have been influenced or created by the results of Learning Assessments?

Similar to other developed nations, Malaysia uses assessment data for varied purposes. For example, policy makers use it for improving national curriculum standards. They develop the policies, which are based on assessment results and the current trends in teaching, learning and assessment. They also keep track of the progress of our national and international achievement. In addition, they provide support for resources in order to improve learning.

Headmasters and school principals are involved in identifying strengths and weaknesses of students through assessment programmes conducted at their school. Hence they are able to plan for improved instruction and student achievement over time. Teachers are able to improve their instruction, monitor students’ progress, judge and alter classroom curriculum, identify needs of special learners, motivate students, place students in groups and provide feedback to fellow teachers as well as students. Finally parents are able to judge their child’s strengths and weaknesses, monitor their child’s progress, and meet with teachers to discuss their child’s learning.

To share some of our policies and plans that have been influenced or created by the results of learning assessments: the findings from international assessments show that some Malaysian students still remained within the low level of achievement group especially in the reasoning (cognitive domain) or higher order thinking skills items. So in our current education blueprint we improved the curriculum content to include student engagement and encourage high order thinking skills in the classroom. In addition, we set a higher percentage of high order thinking items in the national level examination.

3. What are some of the challenges for Malaysia with regards to analysis and interpreting Learning Assessments data? What are the challenges in creating effective policies and plans based on these results?

In my opinion, the challenges for Malaysia with regards to analysis and interpreting learning assessments data and creating effective policies and plans based on these results is mainly with regards to the large scale international assessment data. We are still lacking in technical experts, therefore these experts have to be outsourced from outside the Ministry, such as the Universities and institutions of higher learning. In addition, to get “buy-in” from the policy makers based on data analysis and data findings is another challenge. Gaps in the flow of information between data experts and the top management of the education system to the policy practitioners have to be reduced. Understanding and clearly describing these gaps must become an essential part of the policy-making process. Most policy decisions have to be made in a fast paced environment where multiple considerations compete for attention and where there is often little time (and in many cases little resources) for properly collecting and analyzing data.

4. How will this workshop be useful for Learning Assessments and evidence-based policy making in the Malaysia context? What are some of the lessons-learned that you can apply immediately? Long-term?

First, allow me to take this opportunity to congratulate the organizers of this workshop for taking on this enormous task and for a job well done. The overall objectives of the workshop were achieved, and the contents were successfully delivered. It was an interesting workshop. I have a better understanding about large-scale assessment, data analysis, policy relevant information and how to be proactive in reporting the research findings.

The structure and content of the workshop was interesting, useful and relevant to the nature of my work. It gave me an opportunity to share expertise and experiences on assessments among the participants of the participating countries. As Head of Research and Evaluation Sector, all of the content of the workshop can be applied immediately to my day-to-day work. The workshop motivated me and in the long run more collaboration on research activities among participating countries could be established in analyzing large-scale assessment data.

For more information, please contact Satoko Yano [s.yano(at)] and Ramya Vivekanandan [r.vivekanandan(at)]  at the Education Policy and Reform Unit.

 Written by Mark Manns [m.manns(at)]

Related Links:

• Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific: NEQMAP 

• Global Partnership for Education

• Workshop on “Analyzing and Understanding Learning Assessments for Evidence-Based Policy Making