Time to rethink our examinations | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 20, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:50 AM, June 20, 2020

Time to rethink our examinations

Uncertainties loom large over the holding of Higher Secondary Certificates (HSC) and its equivalent exams. The examinations were scheduled to begin on April 1, but Covid-19 had other plans to befool more than a million students who were supposed to occupy 9,000 educational institutions under eight general, one madrasa, and one technical education boards for their GPA chase. Compelling medical evidence now suggests that it may not be possible to hold the exams any time soon. Then the options are either to wait for a final clearance from WHO (pun added) or to treat the students' earlier results as predicated grades. Many countries have already done it, are we up for it?

The UK government website reports, "The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak is expected to continue having a significant impact on the education system, and the country, for months to come. Therefore, exams and assessments have been cancelled to give pupils, parents, and teachers certainty, and enable schools and colleges to focus on supporting vulnerable children and the children of critical workers."

Both GCSE and International Baccalaureates (IB) have decided to release their predicted/calculated grades so that there is a seamless transition from the secondary to the tertiary. Desperate times require desperate measures. Even our big neighbour is considering the grades received in their 11th grades as the calculated grade for school leaving certificates. We are yet to hear any such whispers, let alone announcements. To leave over a million of students waiting in uncertainties is a dangerous proposition. It will not only see the return of the academic session jam which haunted the university system for a long time but also create social unrest and economic loss. The demographic dividends that we want to profit from will receive a dent if these students are not made ready for the workforce. I cannot imagine what these candidates, their parents, teachers and mentors are going through at this point. These terminal exams are a major source of anxieties and stress for students who have to retain knowledge of the large syllabus taught over two years. The system therefore encourages, if not obligates, students to memorise for their examination.

Then again, when they move beyond their colleges, how much value does our academic system actually ascribe to these school leaving exams? Of course, they are national events studded with golden stars and sweet-meats. The importance of exams became contentious when the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked private universities to refrain from admitting students during the migration to online teaching. When some private universities started admitting students based on their HSC marks, UGC intervened saying that students should not be admitted without any admission tests. After a parley, they have slightly changed their position.

UGC's benchmark is the public system, where competition for seats is very high. These publicly funded subsidised universities with more prestige factors are the top choices for candidates. The institutions rely on a testing system that aims to eliminate admission seekers. HSC and SSC results are given little or no weightage, but they are mostly treated as qualifying points. The primary emphasis is on testing. There are some prestigious institutes that do not even give any weightage to public examination results as they rely on their own written and oral examinations. The last example testifies the autonomy exercised by, and the anomalies that exist among, the universities. At the same time, it shows that the universities do not necessarily think of examinations as shapers of learning. In most cases, universities feel that the grades are indicative of students' over reliance on rote learning, and may not reflect students' real aptitudes.  

If that is the case, what is the point of having two public examinations in such close proximity whose value is of little consequence? The GPAs, indicative of summative assessments (i.e. evaluation after the course completion), are ultimately reduced to qualifying points, and universities set their own admission criteria. Can we not have an integrated test for middle school and high school? Students have to sit for Primary School Certificates after grade five and Junior School Certificate after grade eight. Four public examinations in the primary and secondary system—yet our universities do not properly acknowledge their outcome. What is missing in this assessment process is an emphasis on the formative assessment (evaluation during the learning process). In the public schooling system, the formative assessments carry no weightage (tutorials, quizzes and presentation); labs are the only exceptions. In the public tertiary system, the mid or semester ending exams are summative tests where questions are set theoretically to judge what students have learned in the course. Such exams can easily be phased out and evaluated through frequent class tests and class performance.

The problem is that there is no institutional trust. In the absence of accountability and transparency, we have cultured mistrust. In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, UGC, for instance, initially allowed the universities to teach but not to assess online. The implied logic was that students could cheat if they attended their exams without any faculty invigilation. How do we re-instill the trust that is gone? In the long run, we can do it by revamping our entire academic infrastructure, but in the short haul, we can change our evaluation and assessment system.

The current education system was founded on the Industrial revolution model. The work environment required a limited skillset, knowledge and intelligence (IQ). The organisational behaviour, inherited from our colonial past, focused on whether we could follow instructions and maintain the required standard of the institution. It was aimed at creating a middle class who will be a cog in the machine. In this revolutionised era of innovation, when we are entering the fourth industrial revolution, the education system must learn to adapt constantly. So if students are tested for their memorisation and standardisation, they will soon be replaced by the machine. Just remember how obsolete the times table has become now that your phone has become a super computer.  

Exams must go beyond testing IQ alone. In order to unleash a student's potential, a student must be tested for a cocktail of IQ (intelligence), EQ (emotional intelligence), and RQ (resilience). These tests can be done when a teacher is teaching and observing each individual's growth. A large hall exam with a larger syllabus may miss those fine shades latent in an individual. The change in exam system will require a change in the teaching method. We will need a lot of trainings and piloting for sure. Once the public exam system is revised, we will start getting creative individuals who are not only ready for the tertiary level but also for the brave new world where they will have to compete against smart machines for jobs.


Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.

Email: shamsad71@hotmail.com

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