Restoring the credibility of grades in SSC and HSC examinations
News media all over the country have reported that the results of Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) and Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations would, from now on, be published not just with the letter grades but with the marks obtained. There is some variation in the newspaper reports, where some have stated that that the marks would only be accessible to the individual students, while other reports do not contain any specific details, thus making it unclear whether the transcript itself would contain the obtained marks and thus, would be accessible to all. In either case, the decision would clearly indicate an admission of failure from the administrators that the existing grading policy is not properly working. After all, if students' marks need to be published, it clearly suggests that as an indicator of students' academic performance, the letter grade system has failed to achieve its purpose.
However, let us not forget that the introduction of the letter grade system was not a mistake and if implemented properly, it could have yielded very positive impacts. In the past, the hoopla associated with being on the merit list of the educational boards or the so-called 'stand' culture was not quite healthy and encouraged a rat race of sorts. The grading system has been successful in getting rid of a structure where a handful of students stole the show, but sadly it has introduced a system where the grades have become so easily attainable that even after attaining the highest possible grade in SSC examination, there is no guarantee of a place in a college of repute in Dhaka. It could be said that the system had been introduced by acclaimed scholars with good intentions, but it has been manoeuvred and implemented in such a way that it is now on the brink of collapse, if it has not collapsed already.
The maniac push for quantity over quality and persistent push for a higher percentage of successful students (regrettably often only in terms of grades) without any heed to the quality of the education imparted have, in particular, created a sad state of affairs. Most people associated with teaching at secondary and higher secondary level would possibly admit that this madness has pushed many teachers to be oblivious to the fundamentals of objective, rigorous assessment of examination scripts. While probably failing SSC or HSC examination should not be easy, the attainment of the highest grade should not be easy either. Possibly, one fundamental flaw with the grading system in the SSC and HSC examinations is that they have a very wide dispersion of marks within the same letter grade. For example, a student obtaining 80 and another obtaining 100 would both obtain the same grade.
It may not be out of place to debunk a myth about the nexus of the introduction of the objective type test (in the form of a multiple-choice question) system and the degradation of the quality of education in secondary and higher secondary level. A popular perception about objective tests is that they are too dependent on luck and anyone may do well in this type of a test. There may be some element of truth here, but it would only be true if the questions are too recklessly set. For example, in some cases the options given as potential answers to a multiple-choice question may be such that anyone with a very limited knowledge on the topic would be able to choose the possible answer. However, that is a problem with the type of questions that has been set, not the assessment system. Indeed, objective type questions, though unable to assess creativity or skills of writing, have many good attributes. It encourages students to read more thoroughly and takes away the element of subjectivity of examiners' marking. Indeed, objective type questions comprises a substantive part of many internationally recognised testing systems, such as IELTS, SAT, TOEFL etc. Even in Bangladesh, students in the admission test for universities fail to sail through the objective tests, although they may score well in the secondary level examination, which would imply that there must be some flaws in the mechanism of the latter.
The decision to include marks may be lauded by some as a measure that would introduce greater transparency in the college admission process for HSC exams, because a student would now automatically be able to know where her/his marks stand vis-à-vis her/his peers. However, disclosing the marks obtained in each subject is by no means a solution to the problem of a grading system which fails to separate the best from the rest. Indeed, a greater use of this new feature of the result system would actually be a quiet reversal to the old system of assessment by marks, not letter grades. It is inescapable that the wheels of the grading system in SSC and HSC examinations are coming off, and the policymakers have to act, and act very decisively, so that this system can regain public confidence. The first step in the proper direction may be the reduction of wide dispersion of marks within the same letter grading band and greater freedom to the examiners to do their job properly.
The Writer is an Associate Professor at School of Law, BRAC University.