Reforming Malta’s exams system: Seven takeaways from the Benchmark report

Phasing out benchmark exams and replacing them with an alternative system: all you need to know

The report ultimately suggests that over a period of three years informal assessments should have an equal weighting in the assessment as exams
The report ultimately suggests that over a period of three years informal assessments should have an equal weighting in the assessment as exams

Phasing out benchmark exams and replacing them with an alternative system which gives more importance to continuous assessments, is only one of many proposals made in the 25 recommendations made in a report chaired by Prof Mark G. Borg, issued by the Ministry for Education. These are some of the reforms set to change everyday life in Maltese classrooms. 

1. Three benchmark assessments in different phases of educational journey instead of current one should be considered in new system 

While recommending that the current benchmark at Year 6 is phased out, the report calls for the consideration of a new system in which students undertake benchmark assessments in three important stages of their educational journey, namely at the beginning of Year 3, during Year 6 and Year 8 (form 2). 

The report does not advocate the total abolition of exams but is unclear whether a national standardized exam should remain or not.   

To ensure a seamless transition to secondary level the report suggests that “it would make sounder educational sense to replace the benchmark either with an informal college based or an informal national assessment, possibly including an exam”.   

The report ultimately suggests that over a period of three years informal assessments should have an equal weighting in the assessment as exams. 

The new system of educational benchmarking is to be in place by the second quarter of 2021. 

2. Report suggests Maltese and English as “a foreign language” to migrant children 

An increasing number of migrant students are exempted from sitting for Maltese and/or English exam/s “if they had not been studying the subject during the previous two years of Primary school in Malta” 

Form 1 migrant students participating in one of the 40 focus groups organised by the authors of the report, described the benchmark as ‘a very big, big problem’, which causes them much unnecessary stress even if they insisted on being an opportunity to show their competencies as other students are. Such students face the “gross disadvantage of having all of a sudden to learn how to speak and understand two new languages.” 

One possible solution suggested in the report is that the Mathematics paper should be in the native language of migrant students. 

Offering these students a simplified course in Maltese or English thought as a “foreign language” is also floated in the report, which warns that otherwise these students would drop out altogether from these assessments on account of the language barrier. 
 3. The ban on calculators should be revised 

The use of calculators is banned in benchmark exams and at primary level in general only to be introduced in Form 1. 

But the report suggests that now that the use of the tablet as an educational tool is being phased in, “serious consideration” should be given to start training students in calculator skills at primary level. Therefore the report does not exclude the use of the tablet in part of the Mathematics written paper that assesses problem-solving skills. 

Currently students are made to sit for a separate mental exam. But Mathematics teachers participating in a focus group questioned the utility of this exam, as this skill is discontinued altogether at secondary level when students start using a calculator. 

Paper markers suggested that mental Mathematics should be grounded in everyday situations. 

4. In maths, students should have a bilingual exam paper 

The report suggests that “serious consideration” should be given to start training students in calculator skills at primary level
The report suggests that “serious consideration” should be given to start training students in calculator skills at primary level

Students would perform better in Maths if a Maltese version of the paper is presented alongside the English version, with students being left free to answer any question either in Maltese or in English. 

The report proposes that this change in assessments should be introduced at the end of year 4 so that by the end of year 6 students would have become accustomed to a bilingual Mathematics paper. 

5. Low ability students should have a simplified paper 

Forcing low ability students to sit for the same benchmark exam as other students only results in “humiliation, disappointment and frustration of faring poorly when compared with the rest of the cohort”. 

The report warns that, this is impacting negatively on the self-esteem and motivation of these students, not least on their self-esteem and motivation. 

Therefore the possibility of having the Benchmark exam papers “pitched at two levels should be seriously explored”. 

6. Listening comprehensions should be presented in a video clip 

Presently students are being assessed on their listening comprehension skills in Maltese and English on the basis of an audio recording which some find difficult to comprehend. 

The report now suggests that students should be presented with a video clip in Maltese and English should be presented as a video clip. 

“This should help students to understand better the text by presenting it in a context”. 

One problem faced by students is their familiarity with the pronunciation used by audio recordings. The report suggests that sample video clips in Maltese and in English featuring the same persons who will appear in the actual video clip employed in the exam should be available for use in class so that students will have time to familiarise themselves with the pronunciation. 

7. Students exempted from benchmarks should still be assessed 

In 2017 of the 809 applicants 101 were exempted from the exams entirely, while about 470 were granted some sort of alternative arrangement. 

The report recommends that students who are exempted from taking the benchmark in whole or in part should nevertheless move to form 1 with a profile outlining the competencies achieved so far. 

One of the problems highlighted in the report is that students who for one reason or another are exempted from sitting for the benchmark are not being assessed.   

It was also pointed out in the feedback to the report that that these students, some of which hailing from difficult social backgrounds, have every right like all other students to be assessed at this juncture in their educational journey, not least for them to know what they have achieved so far. 

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