WE inherited our school examination system from the colonial rulers. After independence, universities were responsible for conducting school examinations in the country. Under the Sharif Commission 1959, the government of Pakistan established the Boards of Intermediate & Secondary Education.
The boards had a broader mandate of organising, regulating, developing and controlling both intermediate and secondary education in the country. Later, their mandate was restricted to the conduct of intermediate and secondary examinations. The boards continued to maintain examination standards and conducted the SSC and HSSC examination effectively and efficiently. It was after the 1970s that they started struggling to maintain examination standards and credibility.
The examination system in Pakistan has suffered from various deficiencies, including: lack of a proper item bank, the lower order of cognitive skills among students (rote learning), lack of an examination syllabus including test specifications, lack of examination reliability and validity, leakage of question papers, cheating and other unfair practices, lack of accountability of examination staff, lack of authenticity and accuracy in marking, lack of transparency in examination results, and lack of research in examination.
There seems to be a disconnect between the ‘purpose of education’ and the ‘purpose of examination’ whichhas had an adverse impact on the quality of education in Pakistan. Examinations must be ‘fit for purpose’ to help achieve learning outcomes underlying the curriculum framework.
Quick fixes cannot improve the deteriorating quality of exams.
Recognising the need for improving the examination system, the National Education Policy 2009 emphasised the consolidation of the existing boards for their improvement, but that remained mere rhetoric.
While many boards have failed to conduct transparent and quality examinations in the country in general and Sindh in particular, they also didn’t maintain examination uniformity and standardisation. Hence, the quality of exams varied from board to board across the country. The stakeholders also raised concerns about the deteriorating quality of exams, including malpractice and corruption, but no serious attempt was made to transform the school examination system to address these genuine concerns.
Although some boards have transformed themselves to a great extent, the rest, especially the Sindh boards, are currently passing through an examination crisis. They should adapt the other boards’ best practices and transform their examination system through effective integration of technology. In order to deal with the school examination crisis in Sindh boards, the latter’s controlling authority recently outsourced the school examination from the current academic year, which seems to be a ‘quick-fix’ and not a realistic or sustainable solution. School examination reform is inevitable since the quality of education to a large extent depends on the quality of examination. Hence, it is necessary to gradually move away from assessing the lower order of cognitive skills to a higher order (conceptual, application and analytical skills).
The school examination system, especially in Sindh, requires an intensive and critical review so that it can regain the confidence and trust of stakeholders, especially parents and students. The system requires a cohesive policy direction to improve its quality and credibility. Some policy interventions are proposed which include: introducing automation in the system, reviewing students’ cognitive skills, changing the pattern of question papers, improving teaching and learning processes, conducting fair and transparent examinations, developing a robust marking scheme, preparing transparent examination results, and conducting research into examination systems.
Ultimately, out-of-the-box solutions are required, based on the collective wisdom of stakeholders. There is also a dire need to constitute a task forceto critically examine the current examination crisis, not only in terms of academics but also with regard to the credibility of the boards, which is at stake, and to prepare a roadmap to improve school examinations.
A fully transformed school examination system can contribute to assessing students’ academic capability and their academic growth, developing healthy competition amongst them, looking after their well-being, and ensuring social cohesion. This will also require networking with national and global examination boards to share with each other the best examination practices for continuous improvement and external certification for quality assurance.
Thus, more efforts are required to realise the purpose of education which can only be achieved through a vibrant and powerful school examination system.
The writer is a senior educationist, policy scholar, and researcher.
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2023