Central admission tests: Turning the wheels too hastily?
The idea of the proposed central admission tests in public universities has been promoted as a fairer, inexpensive alternative to the existing system of university entry. The new system promises to be the most efficient way of relieving admission-seekers and their parents of tremendous physical, mental and economic pressures that they endure due to separate university tests. This change demands a massive cultural transformation in higher education. But the way it has been put forward seems to be unnecessarily hasty and does not raise confidence that reasonable efforts have been made to implement it across a large and complex system.
If implemented, the standardised tests are expected to be a transformative event, a life-determining one for the students. That is why, due diligence is required before the plan is set in motion. But the current situation gives one the impression that everything is happening too fast. Not even the new admission procedures have been publicised yet. The lack of visible preparatory efforts to steer and monitor the implementation of the uniform testing system, given that not enough time is left before the next admission season, is deeply worrying.
Since no pilot experiment has been conducted before taking the decision of implementing it countrywide, no one really knows how the whole system will work and what challenges it will face. While it is of utmost importance that the universities have a stake in decision-making at every step of the way, it has not been the case. So, the decision seems to have been imposed from the top.
The big question now is how it will be conducted; who will ultimately be responsible for such a massive-scale testing situation; who will develop the questions and who will evaluate the scripts. Not just the students, but teachers also have no clear idea about these issues. Perhaps it would have been more logical to take such an important decision after developing necessary strategies to counter possible challenges. For example: at a time when preventing the leakage of question papers is still an ongoing struggle and a highly sensitive and important task, a single leakage can ruin the chances of its success. Even the quality of invigilation in different places may have different standards. Also, in order for the students to make informed choices, they need a discipline-based ranking of universities. We do not know when and on what basis it will be done.
This concern is particularly important because of a problem that is inherent in our culture of educational policymaking. Contemporary experience shows that major changes in our education sector occurred too quickly and without necessary preparations, resulting in failures to achieve intended outcomes. Replicating reforms and changes implemented successfully in other countries often turned out to be a recipe for disaster here. Though the multiple-choice question (MCQ) format could have been an efficient way of assessing learning outcomes, here it has been reduced to a testing method that deals with the mechanical repetition of something to be learned. This is because we have never had enough trained teachers capable of drafting multiple-choice questions that effectively test learning outcomes. The same can be said about the much-publicised introduction of the creative question method at secondary schools. On the other hand, it is hard to say if the Primary Education Completion (PEC) and Junior School Certificate (JSC) exams actually have any effect on improving the quality of education or they are just adding undue burden on the young students.
The problem we have is that almost half of the students finishing higher secondary education will not find a place at a public or government university. The testing system is not just a way of measuring competency or proficiency; more importantly, it is effectively a way of shutting down access to public-funded higher education. The proposed central tests appeal to the logic of convenience above anything else. This is important, but at what cost? What will happen to the diverse enrolment mechanisms, essential for a good number of disciplines? We are still in the dark about the whole process. Almost no discussion took place involving stakeholders at universities.
The major challenges that any unified system faces are related to ensuring equality and diversity. Our education system has become increasingly pressurised with centralised exams. The addition of another massive, centralised and annual tests runs the risk of imposing additional burden on an already highly-pressurised system. If the centralised exam is the only thing considered by universities for enrolment, and there are no interviews or other admission criteria, then it will be hard to control the mushrooming of coaching centres. Due to this special characteristic, it runs the risk of increasing inequality in education by widening urban-rural gap and regional differences. If the uniform tests take place as a singular annual affair, it may put excessive strain on students by shrinking the horizons for many of them, especially those from the poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. Soon it may also turn into a dreaded and stressful exercise. That is why, implementing another such exams requires careful consideration and gradual advancement.
If we are relying only on MCQ for standardised exams, leaving out comprehensive tests and diverse admission criteria, then we're actually going backwards, since many universities are already implementing those things to value creative and critical thinking. To ensure that students with diverse interests do not fall behind in their quest for securing the subject of their choice, holding general testing and subject-specific cluster testing can be a possible solution.
On the other hand, every testing involves evaluation. While standardisation of testing has been talked about quite a lot in recent years, the issue of standardisation of evaluation has not been raised at all. If we are to see a comprehensive evaluation system for the integrated tests, it will demand massive preparations involving a huge number of teachers, not just those who are affiliated with the ruling party. I have not yet seen or heard anything about any preparation of that sort.
At this point, it is hard to imagine how the proposed central tests will be able to overcome the challenges faced by the existing system (like the difficulty in selecting innovative talents who are otherwise not very competitive, question paper leakage, and so on). A bottom-up approach to address these will be much more useful.
It is possible to address most of the concerns of the autonomous universities about the proposed system through careful planning and necessary engagement. In that case, any arrangement must uphold the autonomy of the universities. We expect that the issue of the unified system will be discussed by the academic councils, the highest body for taking any academic decision in public universities, and a decision will be taken as soon as possible. For the UGC and the government, there is no harm in recognising the central role of the universities in the whole testing and evaluation process, given that they are the leading autonomous institutions of the country. The universities should have the final say—maybe through comprehensive tests (if not included in the standardised tests) and interviews—when it comes to enrolment. The introduction of the new system, therefore, requires long and engaged discussions.
Zobaida Nasreen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Dhaka.