Assessments for what?

November 30, 2018

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor economic at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor economic at Lums, Lahore.

CHILDREN stressing about Matriculation and Intermediate examinations is common and to be expected. Performance in school-leaving examinations has a significant impact on college and university admissions. A child’s future can be determined by the examination results.

But stress levels rising to the point where children commit suicide if they do not do well, or enter a state of depression if they get a few marks less than what they expected, or parents and students taking to the streets to protest if an examination question is deemed to be ‘out of course’ is not healthy. These are definite signs that something is very wrong with the assessment system.

The purpose of assessments is usually to test a) knowledge, understanding and learning, b) subject or area-specific skills, and c) to use assessment as a way of ranking students. The ranking is deemed important if selection or sorting has to be done for higher-level admissions.

It is quite clear that our Matriculation and Intermediate examinations are not a good test of knowledge, understanding, learning or even specific skills. They are definitely used for ranking students, but since they do not test knowledge and learning, they rank students on what they are able to test for: memory and reproduction.

What if we were to do away with the Matriculation and Intermediate examinations?

Matriculation and Intermediate examinations are well known in this regard. They are based on specific books and exercise and practice questions, and they do not deviate from past papers and very specific patterns. Even the marking of answers is extremely regimented and dependent on the specific way questions have been answered in the textbooks. How can such examinations measure learning? And how can they rank students except on the basis of memory and exam-taking techniques?

But should we even have high-stakes examinations just for ranking students on the basis of their memory? How can that be justified? In addition, there are many consequences, intended and unintended, that stem from these examinations. Apart from the pressure that we mentioned, such examinations promote teaching to the test and even there on specific skills; they encourage memorisation at the cost of understanding; they encourage high levels of competition; and they encourage the thinking that getting marks, using any means fair or foul, is the ultimate goal of education.

Matriculation examinations are also a barrier that causes many students to drop out of school before reaching 10th grade: if you do not think you will pass, why stay in school? Almost all of these consequences are undesirable.

Clearly, we need to reform the assessment system. Imagine the following possibility. What if we did away with the public, high-stakes Matriculation and Intermediate examinations altogether? Instead, we asked each high school to give a school-leaving certificate, based on internal, summative and formative, assessments (after appropriate training of teachers), to each student deemed to have successfully completed the learning requirements of a certain level. What disaster would we be courting if we went in this direction?

Since our examinations are not checking learning, there will be no loss on that count. The only thing we will lose is the ability to rank students. How will colleges manage admissions if they do not have Matriculation or Intermediate results?

This is not as much of an issue for medical and engineering universities: many of them have their own entry tests. We could also start a SAT type of test as well for others. Such a test will not have the same stakes as the Intermediate examination. First, it will not be an examination in all subjects. Second, it will not have to be taken by all children: those who cannot apply to colleges, for whatever reason, will not have to take this test. But they will still be eligible for government jobs etc as they will have a school-leaving certificate saying they have learnt the basics.

This is not as radical an idea as it seems. There are a number of countries that do not have centralised high-stakes school-leaving examinations. And some of these countries are as large as Pakistan.

Even if it is still thought that doing away with these examinations altogether is too radical a step, we can always take measures to reduce the importance of these examinations so that we move in the direction where these exams begin to assess learning and are not just a tool for ranking students.

If schooling is 12 years, why do we need a public examination after the ninth and 10th grades? Why not just have examinations at the Intermediate (school-leaving) level. There is ambiguity still, a historical legacy, whether school is for 10 years or 12. If no university is allowed to admit a student with less than 12 years of education, then why have Matriculation as an assessment point? Why do we need ranking there?

We could also reform examinations to make them capture learning better. This could be done by moving towards setting examinations on the basis of the curriculum rather than particular textbooks. But this is not going to be an easy task in the current circumstances. If these examinations continue to be used for ranking students, the pressure to get higher marks would remain. Students, parents and teachers will resist tinkering with the scheme of setting examinations as well as of grading them. So, though it might look like a less radical step than doing away with these examinations altogether, it might, ultimately, be a more difficult reform to achieve.

Similarly, we could move from marks (75 out of 100 etc) to grades (A, B, etc). This will also loosen the tie with ranking. But for the same reason as mentioned, it will be resisted by stakeholders.

Our examination system is broken. We need to fix it. But it is important to go deep and to rethink why we examine and how. Real reform can be politically costly. The new government has been talking a lot about change. Will it be willing to take up the cause for deeper reforms?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor economic at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2018