Math and Science proficiency declines, expert cites PPSMI policy as cause

Drawing on his research, he pointed out that many students struggled with the English language foundation, hindering their understanding of technical subjects.

SHARIFAH SHAHIRAH
13 May 2024 07:45pm
Expert revealed that the shift to English-medium instruction negatively impacted students' comprehension and interest in mathematics and science subjects. - 123RF
Expert revealed that the shift to English-medium instruction negatively impacted students' comprehension and interest in mathematics and science subjects. - 123RF
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SHAH ALAM - An educationist has raised concerns over the declining proficiency in mathematics and science among Malaysian students, attributing it partly to the historical policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI), which began in 2003.

Expert Prof Datuk Dr Ishak Haron also revealed that the shift to English-medium instruction negatively impacted students' comprehension and interest in mathematics and science subjects.

Prof Dato Dr Ishak Haron
Prof Dato Dr Ishak Haron

Drawing on his research, he pointed out that many students struggled with the English language foundation, hindering their understanding of technical subjects.

"When teachers use English as the medium of instruction, students often struggle to understand and prefer lessons delivered in Malay.

“Occasionally, teachers mix both languages, but with textbooks predominantly in English, it hampers their ability to conduct research and complete exercises,” he said when contacted recently.

PPSMI was a government policy designed to enhance students' English language proficiency in primary and secondary schools across Malaysia.

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He stressed that in 2023, only 15 per cent of SPM students are in the ‘pure science stream’ a decline from about 43 per cent in 2002 before PPSMI policy was introduced beginning 2003.

Therefore, Ishak said that when students face difficulty understanding English in mathematics and science, they were often labelled as weak.

Additionally, he added that roughly 70 per cent of students find mathematics and science hard to comprehend.

He emphasised a lack of interest and motivation, particularly worsened by the onset of Covid, resulting in a decline in the number of Malaysians studying Mathematics.

Ishak highlighted fewer exercises were undertaken by students during the years 2004 to 2008, leading to significant weaknesses in mathematics and science assessments.

He said ⁠Malaysian students' performance in the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Maths and Science tests ranked in the top 10 among 58 participating countries, prior to the implementation of PPSMI in 2003.

However, Malaysian students' performance in Math and Science in the 2007, 2011, and 2015 TIMMS, as well as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, saw a drastic decline after the introduction of PPSMI, falling below the international average.

“Even among those who struggled, only 75 per cent attempted the test.

“Successful students comprised only 20 to 25 per cent, mostly from affluent backgrounds, while ordinary students mostly struggled and performed poorly,” he added.

From Ishak's perspective, he disagreed with prioritising English proficiency before mastering other subjects.

He suggested strengthening English language subjects at all levels of education instead of translating all subjects into English.

He also stressed another reason why students lose interest was that some of them sought early employment to support their families.

Ishak said that from his perspective, if a student from a lower-income background, aged 15 or 16, started earning money, they may prioritise work over education.

He further stated most students choose to work because it offers immediate income, without much consideration for the future.

“Being from a lower-income background, they may find the prospect of a better-paying job more appealing than continuing their studies, especially if they perceive subjects like science and mathematics as difficult.

“The good thing is the implementation of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), as it can be seen Malays are fond of this alternative.

“I praise the government for being more practical, with learning in two languages, English and Malay,” he said.

Ishak added that when children engage in activities they were familiar with, learning becomes easier.

With TVET, they had the opportunity to pursue higher education if they wished, which was commendable.

Recently, the report "Bending Bamboo Shoots: Strengthening Foundation Skills" by World Bank report revealed that Malaysian students by age 15 lag behind peers from Hong Kong, China, Japan and Singapore in reading, science, and mathematics.

Furthermore, 42 per cent of Malaysian students failed to achieve reading proficiency by age 11, with lower-income families facing a more significant challenge, where 61 per cent lack reading proficiency.

In the meantime, 24 per cent of Malaysian children starting primary school at age seven lack school-readiness skills due to a lack of preschool education, with 10 per cent of children aged four to six not having access to preschool.

The report recommended expanding access to quality preschool education, implementing standardised learning assessments and providing ongoing teacher professional development based on international best practices.

The World Bank suggested enhancing Malaysia's early childhood learning programme while recognising the country's progress in expanding preschool education.