Children’s learning and wellbeing, not testing, should be the priority
Examinees of PECE, SSC and HSC will attend in-person classes every day while the rest of the students will go to school once a week after schools and colleges reopen on September 12, Education Minister Dipu Moni announced on September 5. The SSC and HSC exams are planned to be held in November and December, respectively.
State Minister of Primary and Mass Education Zakir Hossain said the next day that plans are underway to hold the primary completion exam (PECE) at the end of November and early December with a shortened syllabus on all six subjects.
Schools remained closed for the better part of two school years and students were deprived of their normal school life. Children and their families are still subject to the trauma of the pandemic and the disruption of life and livelihood. Emotional stress and the mental health effects of the pandemic on children have been severe, according to surveys and expert opinion. In light of that, how justified is the single minded-focus of the education authorities on holding the exams?
Ever since the PECE (at the end of grade five) and JSC (at the end of grade eight) national examinations were introduced in 2009 and 2010, education experts have been questioning the need and value of adding these high stake examinations to the existing SSC and HSC examinations (at the end of grades 10 and 12).. With the hindsight of a decade, it has become obvious that the two additional exams for the young children have not helped to improve pedagogy in schools or the learning outcome for children. Instead, the exams have diverted the attention and energy of teachers, parents and students to preparing and securing high scores at any cost in the public exams. As documented by Education Watch study (2014), these have created a new industry of coaching centres, guidebooks, mock tests, second guessing of probable exam questions, memorising answers, and even criminal activities related to question paper leaks and cheating in exams.
The simple logic seems to have been forgotten that it is teaching and learning in the classroom, not testing and exams, that help students and improve quality of education. There is an important role for assessing student's learning in good pedagogy. A teacher has to ensure that students are learning every day and making progress during the school year. This is known as formative assessment in contrast to summative assessment, such as the public exams and the annual exams in schools. Regrettably, in our schools, formative assessment as a tool for pedagogy is neglected, while formal exams, especially the national ones, are given all the attention.
The culture and habit of inordinate attention on public exams have affected the assessment undertaken within the school in the way their frequent periodic exams dominate the school routine. A distraught parent of a well-known private primary and secondary school that run Bangla and English medium sections sent me a half-yearly exam paper for class three maths received by his 8-year-old daughter to be returned online. The girl is expected to complete the exam in two and half hours. The closely printed four-page question paper included 46 questions in four parts plus 18 alternative questions and a geometry part of six questions.
It was surprising to see the level of reading comprehension required of the class three student (after more than a year of missed schooling) to answer the math questions, memorisation of definitions of mathematical terms required, and solving mathematical problems, which would be a challenge for a student at levels two or three grades higher. The girl spent a whole day trying to understand and answer the first 28 questions and in desperation turned to her father for help. One wonders what purpose is served by this kind of testing, except perhaps to justify to parents the high fees they charge; and adding to the mental stress of the child.
A conundrum seems to have escaped the attention of the decision-makers as the school restarts. It is difficult to decide at what grade level children are ready to restart. Should it be where they were last year when school closed, or one grade higher now where they would normally be without Covid-19. It is almost the last quarter of the current school year and by the time the trial and error of the phased reopening is carried out, the year will be over. Come January 2022, should the students then be in the next higher grade—skipping two grades without much teaching undertaken in school? Whatever the education authorities' narrative about online and distant teaching and weekly "assignments" may be, most observers agree that the large majority of students, who live in rural areas and belong to low income families, were practically out of touch with learning activities for most of two academic years.
The official thinking seems to be that—regardless of total school shutdown for almost two academic years—students who were in grade three in March 2020, should be considered in grade four in 2021 and would be in grade five in January 2022. But with no schooling for most of two years, are the students prepared for the lessons in their new grade level? How will the teachers adjust and adapt their lessons for the students' level of readiness? How will the students cope with the new grade level content without the pre-requisites learned earlier? Will the accumulated deficits handicap a generation in their future learning, except perhaps the few fortunate ones who are highly gifted or whose families can afford expensive private tutoring? Should there be a rapid assessment of students' core skill level when school restarts to decide where they should be placed?
An alternative approach is, of course, a set pattern of examinations and testing, for which students are drilled to memorise the answers in school and in coaching centres and they pass their exams. Acquiring the knowledge and competencies from studying the subjects is not necessary to pass these exams. Is this desirable, though this seems to be the accepted practice in our schools?
The decision-makers have forgotten or are not willing to admit that when schools ran normally before the pandemic, the majority of students did not acquire the basic competencies in Bangla and maths, i.e., literacy and numeracy, expected at the grade level by the national curriculum. This outcome unfortunately has been revealed by national student assessment (NSA) at the primary level and learning assessment at secondary institutions (LASI). It is highly likely that the situation has further aggravated, especially for the disadvantaged children from low income families.
The Directorate of Secondary Education claims that late last year, 94 percent of the students collected assignments from schools and returned them. It is not known whether the students' work were marked properly by teachers, how well students performed or how credible was the reported data from schools. But on the basis of this information, it was claimed that students were very much engaged in learning. The officials seem to live in a make-believe world of their own!
The key messages, emphasised by me in an earlier op-ed ("To open or not to open schools," ...The Daily Star, May 31, 2021) remain valid. First, going for reopening in stages observing health and safety protocol is the right decision, but more effort is needed for coordinated planning by health and education authorities, especially at the local level. Secondly, a learning loss recovery plan has to be formulated and implemented with at least a three year time-line including extension of the current academic year by six months to June 2022, and opportunistically, changing school calendar permanently to September-June.
There are also pedagogy, curricular arrangements, teacher support and learning assessment elements which need attention. Curriculum shortening and public exams have to be based on epistemological reasoning focusing on "core competencies", rather than sticking to the whole gamut of subjects in the syllabus. The latter path seems to be favoured by the officials. PECE and JSC examinations this year should be abandoned and a sound alternative should be considered for the future. Abridged SSC and HSC exams should be held on core subjects early next year, instead of rushing to exams within this calendar year.
Thirdly, effective management and implementation of the recovery plan is critical with upazila-based and institution-based planning, work teams formed involving non-government stakeholders and adequate financing. The financial support should include institutions, teachers and students currently outside of government support. Finally, the short-term actions have to be placed within a medium term and longer term framework.
The pandemic is not over yet. Physical and mental well-being of children and helping them return to a meaningful learning process should be the priority. Students falling behind by a year, if necessary, will not be the end of the world, if a proper learning recovery plan is implemented effectively.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University.