Reforming assessments

Published March 31, 2023
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

PUBLIC boards for intermediate and secondary education still have a poor reputation in terms of the quality of their assessments and what they measure. Despite decades of reform efforts, board examinations are still known to be too dependent on memory and rote learning, past papers and predictable patterns for the kind of questions that are asked. The practical side of assessments continues to be ignored. And there are serious concerns about grade inflation as well. As a result, performance in the board examinations has become a weak measure for the quality of education and even individual standing.

One outcome of this is that parents and students who can afford it have been opting for other boards. The Cambridge ‘O’/‘A’ Level examinations are the main alternative but high school diplomas and International Baccalaureate are options as well. These international boards/certifications have a positive reputation but they come with a significant price tag. Most children/parents cannot afford the examination fees of international boards and they also cannot afford the fees charged by schools that prepare students for such examinations.

Though we have 30-odd intermediate and secondary examination boards in the country, 28 of these are public/government boards. These 28 boards, apart from the Islamabad Capital Territory Board, are geographically defined and have, more or less, monopolies in the regions they work in. Punjab has eight boards; the earliest one, the Lahore Board, was set up in 1954, while the last one to be established was the Sahiwal Board in 2012. Similarly, Sindh has six boards where the latest one, the Shaheed Benazirabad Board, was set up in 2015.

Why do we have so many boards in the public sector, why are they geographically defined and given monopolies and why are they not allowed to compete with each other? The government has been unable to reform these boards through bureaucratic initiatives, so should we not allow the market to work its magic through competition? The private boards have to compete for students; why should the same pressure not be applied to the public boards?

Despite all the talk, progress on reforming our examination systems and boards has been slow.

Twenty-eight boards setting examinations when Pakistan does not have many assessment experts and/or psychometricians is clearly asking for poor quality exams. If we had just one board or a few boards, we could gather experts there; with 28 boards this is not possible. When the Aga Khan Board can hold examinations in all schools affiliated with it across Pakistan, and Cambridge can do so across countries, what is the justification for having a board in each division across the country? There is none. At best, we should have administrative structures to administer assessments in each district, but examination-making and grading can and should be centralised for better control, quality and quality assurance.

Though ‘reforms’ in examination systems and boards have been talked about for decades, progress has been slow at best. Even when the Cambridge ‘O’/‘A’ Level system has lost much of its lustre and is now thought to have been ‘figured out’ by local schools and teachers, Pakistani boards have been unable to catch up. There is still a significant difference, in reality, in the quality of examinations, curriculum and books, and the difference is even larger in terms of perceptions of quality.

One way forward might be to allow the domestic boards to compete with each other beyond their currently mandated geographical boundaries. Let the Lahore Board court schools and/or students in Shaheed Benazirabad or any other place in Pakistan, and vice versa. The government should allow public and private schools (if they are not already allowed to) to register with the board of their choice. This competition, if properly incentivized, could provide the needed vigour to the boards.

Another way forward might be to encourage more private boards. We have only two private domestic boards. The Aga Khan Board is the more active one in this space. But, given the size of the country and the large youth population, there is space for more boards in terms of the number of students. There is definitely space for more boards on the quality spectrum as well. Between the more expensive international boards and many local public boards, there is a wide gulf in terms of pricing and quality. Federal and provincial governments should think about encouraging some universities to set up boards of their own. Many universities are already administering entry tests to students, and some of them might be willing and able to make the investments needed to set up boards. These boards should have no subsidy, should not be given any monopoly rights and should not have any state funding. But they should be provided with a level playing field where there is no advantage to the government boards in terms of having school and/or individual student registrations of either private or public sector schools.

Millions of students appear for high school examinations in Pakistan every year. We know most of them do not have access to quality Matriculation and Intermediate-level assessments. And the government, despite decades of reform efforts, has been unable to reform assessments substantially. International examinations are expensive, and mean a foreign exchange outflow — they are also going to get more expensive. Our children deserve better.

It is time to carry out some structural reforms. We should allow more competition in and between boards, public and private, and we should encourage more private players to set up examination boards. If we have competition — even one or two more players entering the field — the pace of reforms is likely to become faster. The sluggish boards too will have to improve or they will face extinction.

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

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2023

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