Exam reform, a top priority

The correlation between low quality of public schooling and pattern of public examinations is oft ignored in education reforms

Exam reform, a top priority


In the intense debate on the national school curriculum over the last one year, what remained absent from discussion was the quality of assessment system, especially of the high-stake Grade X and XII examinations.

Recall that the debate on curriculum started with the then prime minister Imran Khan expressing alarm over the huge differential of quality in the outcome of the three prevalent systems of education in the country. Specifically, he worried over the low quality of public education in comparison to the private schooling that prepared students for foreign examinations.

What followed the prime minister’s observation was a disaster: the education bureaucracy completely misidentified the real causes of the problem. Their solution was two-fold: adopting English as the medium of instruction from the most basic level (every 4-year-old child learning basic numeracy in English through English poems); and excessive religious content from the lowest grade all the way up to the highest levels of education. It is gratifying to note that the new government plans to revise the Single National Curriculum. Its implementation in Grades VI to VIII has already been stopped.

What the bureaucracy never took into account was the clear correlation between the low quality of public schooling and the pattern of public examinations, especially the high-stake Grade X and XII examinations. Here is an elaboration of this point.

In the educational parlance, there are levels of learning. One classification of educational goals that is more commonly used and taught to school teachers in their professional training is called Bloom’s taxonomy. According to it, the lowest level of learning is receiving and remembering information. The next level is understanding connection between various pieces of information and formation of concepts. The one above that is applying the concepts to different situations. The next higher level is of being able to evaluate ideas and concepts. And at the highest level is the ability to create new ideas. Let us call them levels of learning skills. A quality education attempts to create all of these skills in the learner. Likewise, a high-quality assessment system tests a student’s achievement in all (or most) of these learning skills. In contrast, the poorest assessment system stops at the first level – that is, it only tests memorisation.

The German agency GIZ once carried out a study to compare the quality of Pakistani board exams and the British O level exams. Their result is summarised in the table below, with the information on Agha Khan University Exam Board added.

The study finds that by testing very little of the higher order cognitive skills, Pakistani matriculation exams are far inferior in quality than that of the O Levels as well as AKU-EB. The table should be taken as a quantified verification of the common public school experience where teachers push their students to memorise to the maximum.

Exam reform, a top priority

Teachers in general are not trained in formulating questions of higher order cognitive skills. In-service trainings never even touch this topic.

On top of this emphasis on memory recall, there are other negatives associated with our board exams.

The questions are often repeated, making question papers predictable, which reduces the amount of content to be memorised. This is where guess papers and tuition centres make a good business.

The awful single textbook system that is religiously followed in Pakistan, and the entrenched practice of setting exam questions only from that single textbook further reduces the memorisation effort.

Graders are also happy because reproduced texts make their task easy. They hate questions for which students need to compose their own answers.

And lastly, the rampant cheating and other numerous ways of corruption make the entire exercise of examination utterly meaningless. It is painful to see that such a meaningless assessment of scholastic achievement carries such high stakes in the lives of students.

The formative assessments at the school level cannot be any different in quality. Schools’ internal exams hardly ever test anything beyond memory recall.

Now, a couple of ministers in the new government have vowed to reform the examination system as well. We can only hope that their reform includes removing the deficiencies highlighted above. If it does, then let them be warned of a stiff opposition from the vested interests strongly entrenched around the current system of board exams.

Even if the government keeps to its resolve and faces the lobby of vested interests with an iron fist, there are other difficulties to face.

One of them emerges from the following question: what is stopping the paper setters of Grades X and XII exams from formulating questions that test higher order cognitive skills?

In reply, two questions arise. Are all paper setters able to formulate higher order questions? And, will students be able to answer them without having been a priori exposed to them?

Exam reform, a top priority

The question of capability is quite serious. Teachers in general are not trained in formulating questions of higher order cognitive skills. In-service trainings never even touch this topic. There may be exceptions, but I have found that public school teachers fail to formulate higher order questions even from the lessons they are teaching.

Where is the problem? A perusal of the four-year BEd programme of study of nearly all the universities, even of universities of education, shows little emphasis on the art and science of making questions in their course work. Even in the HEC-defined four-year BEd course, out of a total of 136 credit hours, the topic of assessment is covered in only 3 credit hours.

As for the students’ ability to answer higher order questions, surely most would be able to answer provided they get to practice them beforehand in classrooms. The formative assessment questions in public schools are currently all from the end-of-the-chapter exercises of textbooks. The exercises hardly ever go beyond memory recall, which, by the way, goes to show that textbook writers may also be incapable of formulating questions of higher cognitive skills. The reader may verify it by browsing through textbooks prepared by any of the curriculum and textbook boards.

In short, the move to reform our board exams aimed at bringing them at par with foreign exams is a welcome but not an easy undertaking. It is not undoable either. It would, however, require taking firm corrective steps at multiple levels in a harmonious manner and as a long-term project, until it takes root in our education system. It needs to be done. Continuing with the existing system would amount to subjecting our youth to a grave disadvantage in this competitive world.

The writer taught physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University

Exam reform, a top priority