To look good or do good?

All measures put on the table only amount to ad hoc, short-term quick-fixes

On Thursday, Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training, Shafqat Mahmood, tweeted measures the government is taking for public schools in response to Covid-19: (1) all students will be promoted to the next grade, and (2) all board exams have been cancelled (with the exception of some special cases).

Other options used around the world include postponing exams until schools reopen, or having end-of year assessments in an alternative format. Either of those could have been chosen for grades other than 10 and 12. Postponing exams would have had the additional benefit of keeping students engaged, even as schools remain closed.

Promoting students in Grades 1-8 without requiring them to appear in exams is the least problematic measure that could be taken while simultaneously shielding students from the risk of infection. At these grade levels, promotion to the next grade is an internal school-level decision. Cancelling final exams has no long term consequences on students’ careers, still affords them enough time to make up for deficiencies in understanding and will likely be welcomed by students and parents.

Exam cancellation is more complicated for higher grades that culminate in standardised board exams that factor into university admission decisions. In Pakistan, grades 9 and 11 students, who still have another year of school at the SSC/HSSC level, will have no exams this year. Their exams next grade will simply be reweighted (doubled). Grades 10 and 12 students, who are completing their SSC/HSSC, will not have exams either this year and will see their marks from the previous school year reweighted (doubled). Grades 10 and 12 students will also receive a 3 per cent “bonus” on top, possibly to compensate for better performance students show in exams in the second year of the SSC/HSSC level (whether it is based on evidence or not is unknown). In the absence of reliable data on student performance during the school year, this may be the best option available without costing students a year of their lives. Several other measures were also announced for special cases i.e. students appearing in supplementary exams, who had planned to take all SSC/HSSC subject papers together this year, who had failed more than/less than 40 per cent subjects previously, who were appearing in additional subjects etc.

All measures we have seen put on the table only amount to ad hoc, short-term quick-fixes. None of them address the deep rot and systemic weaknesses in the public school system.

For example, when children return to schools, they will have suffered from learning loss. There is no reason to hope that children, who were sent home in a hurry without learning materials or any plan to continue learning, will have continued working in the absence of moderation. These children will be promoted to the next grade and teachers will get busy in the race to finish the curriculum without remediating the learning losses. It is not difficult to imagine students struggling to keep up and see many already on the verge of dropping out get pushed over the edge. Current school closure should be used to train teachers to deliver an accelerated remedial curriculum, teaching to the most important student learning outcomes of principal subjects. So far, we have not heard of any planning being done along these lines.

Instead of planning for a second wave of the pandemic and preparing remedial learning measures and securing schools, we are still trying to figure out how to handle cancelled board exams – something other school systems have long decided, communicated and are now implementing. Instead, recent news reports show teachers have been stationed at mosques to ensure compliance of Covid safety measures there.

Foreign examination boards like Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and International Baccalaureate (IB) have developed their own – more rigorous and trustworthy – measures to deal with the pandemic. The CIE and IB have developed a procedure to assign candidates of the May/June 2020 exams “predicted grades” based on prior performance, work students did throughout the school year and statistical data. Why are grading and promotion policies of examination systems such as O/A levels, IGCSE, IB in response to school closure considered more reliable and fair? Because they have strong assessment systems, and are built on solid test development, administration, and marking practices. The contingency measures developed to assign “predicted grades” are not pulled out of a hat, but are based on years (decades!) of data they have amassed. Year after year, they analyse student data spanning the time they enter, work through and finish high school. This is leveraged to establish the reliability of their testing. This crisis could have been taken as the impetus needed to rethink our board examination system. Yet, we have not heard of anything on that front.

This crisis could have been taken as the impetus needed to rethink our board examination system. Yet, we have not heard of anything on that front. 

Consider another example: schools have been closed since March. By July 15, they will have been closed for four months. Looking forward, when schools reopen, there is good reason to believe that the virus may resurge in fall. If schools cannot open, or close down again, the provincial and federal governments must be prepared to continue learning in a way that ensures children will not suffer the loss of a full academic year. We have been hearing a lot about online learning lately (mostly from private schools and universities). Has the state taken any steps to transition public schools to online classes if needed? This is particularly critical to students in advanced grade levels, who are at the end of their academic runway, have no time to make up for learning losses, and will suffer greater consequences. Once again, we are not seeing anything being done to address this possibility.

Instead, the initiatives receiving most airtime can be characterised as firefighting and gimmicks (lessons via expensive TV airtime, content creation on a budget/donations), lacking little medium or long-term planning, even as summer time has given the government the opportunity. It pains me to say that whether the government does anything or nothing, it will only affect children attending public schools. Public school children are forsaken by the state in even the best of times, when there is no pandemic around, and deserve more than duct taped, short-term fixes. Like so often, a lot of energy is being spent on looking good rather than doing good.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in education from Michigan State University. She can be reached at [email protected]

To look good or do good?