Monday, 17 November 2008

MUET (Malaysian University English Test)

A Concerned Parent, Penang wrote in The Star-Views on 17 November 2008: "Students had hard time listening to CD" for the MUET (Malaysian University English Test) held on 8 November 2008 at Room 5 UMS, SMK Bandar Baru Perda (B) in Bukit Mertajam.

The letter states that during the listening component of the exam, the voice from the CD was inaudible and as such the students complained to the invigilator who then increased the volume to the maximum. The letter, however, fails to state whether the CD was satisfactorily audible for the students to attempt questions after the adjustment. The Parent proceeded to appeal to the Malaysian Examinations Council, who run this exam, to look into the matter.

The MUET exam is an English proficiency test for undergraduate public university students (and certain private universities eg. MMU, Universiti Petronas & Universiti Tenaga Nasional) comprising 4 components namely listening (15%); speaking (15%); reading (40%); writing (30%). It is categorised into six bands or levels of proficiency recognised in Malaysia and Singapore and does not apply to students from Private Higher Education Institutions.

Band 6- Very good user (Aggregated score:260-300), Very good command of the language. Highly expressive, fluent, accurate and appropriate language: hardly any inaccuracies. Very good understanding of language and contexts. Functions extremely well in the language.
Band 5- Good user (Aggregated score:220-259). Good command of the language. Expressive, fluent, accurate and appropriate language but with minor inaccuracies. Good understanding of language and contexts. Functions well in the language.
Band 4- Competent user (Aggregated score:180-219) Satisfactory command of the language. Satisfactory expressive and fluent,appropriate language but with occasional inaccuracies. Satisfactory understanding of language and contexts. Functions satisfactorily in the language.
Band 3- Modest user (Aggregated score:140-179) Modest command of the language. Modestly expressive and fluent,appropriate language but with noticeable inaccuracies. Modest understanding of language and contexts. Able to function modestly in the language.
Band 2- Limited user (Aggregated score:101-139) Limited command of the language. Lacks expressiveness, fluency; inaccurate use of the language resulting in breakdown in communication. Limited understanding of language and contexts. Limited ability to function in the language.
Band 1- Extremely limited user (Below 100) Poor command of the language. Unable to use language to express ideas: inaccurate use of the language resulting in frequent breakdowns in communication. Little or poor understanding of language and contexts. Hardly able to function in the language.

In comparison, IELTS (International English Language Testing System), is internationally accepted comprising six modules:- Listening, Academic Reading, General Training Reading, Academic Writing, General Training Writing, and Speaking. The proficiency is categorised into 9 levels.

MUET was implemented in 1999 to address the falling standard of English and was intended to be a required exit achievement of a stated Band (1-6) depending on the English proficiency requirements of each particular program or degree. For example, Law faculties at that time were in favour of Band 6 due to the high demands of reading and writing in English in the profession. Programs like religious studies aimed at lower bands as reference to English language material was limited.

Google gave 311,000 hits on MUET. Students blogs indicate that the listening component of MUET has been fraught with problems and is well known to students. The common observation was that the speaker systems used in examination centers, usually schools, produced poor sound quality and were generally less audible to candidates seated further away from the speakers. The speaking component of the exam also drew some critique from students. Unfortunately without a formal public review of the overall exam these concerns will remain unaddressed.

On the positive side, a student mentioned that she achieved Band 5 in her first try. She hopes to improve to Band 6 in a second attempt. Failing this, she will cut her losses as she is not willing to spend her hard earned RM60 for another go. Don't you admire the spirit of determination!

Local universities give minimum information on MUET on their websites. In most it appears as a one liner under general entry requirements like "to show proof of having taken the MUET". Exit requirements for MUET are not apparent. Another university website states that "at least Band 1 of MUET is required for entry". How low can you go? A public university, which shall remain unnamed, has this statement under entry requirements:- "Have takes Malaysian University English Test (MUET)". I hope that's a typo error except it recurs throughout the document . . . cut and paste job with no editing!

There was no evidence of a document on standards and procedures for MUET from the Ministry of Education, Malaysian Examinations Council or the Malaysian Qualifications Agency available in the public domain.

I bring this up because all examinations should have approved documented criteria and standards comprising protocols for procedure and technical requirements (particularly for examinations other than the usual paper/written format) ensuring a reproducible environment in all examination venues.

I remember my contemporaries sitting for the MRCP (Member of the Royal College of Physicians) UK professional examinations in the late 80's in UM, one of the first accredited overseas exam center in the country, in which one component involved projected slides, videos and even sounds (eg abnormal heart sounds) of medical conditions for candidates to answer questions accordingly. The technical criteria of lighting, quality of projection and sound effectiveness in all sections of the examination venue for an optimum number of students per sitting being crucial.

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It was thus a requirement of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) UK to accredit the examination center and venue after conforming to optimal criteria and standards like space, lighting and sound effects to ensure consistency, fairness and credibility of the examination. This involved regular visits conducted by a team of assessors from the RCP UK and the training of a local administrator to manage and conduct the exam on site.

Fastidious examinations of this nature are inappropriate for large masses of students. Ideally listening or speaking language tests should be conducted under controlled conditions of a language laboratory. Most universities have well equipped language labs and before MUET, English proficiency courses for various programs were ably conducted by language faculties and centers.

Perhaps MUET should be reviewed as it appears that implementation, conduct and effectiveness have fallen short of expectations and the original objectives seemed to have become blurred.


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