“In a time of universal deceit,” said the novelist George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The School Leaving Certificate is one such mind-boggling deceit for the majority of our children, describing which with an open mind can make you sound crazy. A hundred and ninety thousand students passed, out of more than four hundred thousand; only a hundred thousand out of three hundred thousand were from public schools (whereas 91 out of 102 thousand passed from private schools). We’re investing 86 billion rupees per year in education, and we largely continue to blame teachers in public schools for this national disaster that we are collective responsible for. Let me explain how the real problem lies with our society’s fundamental misunderstanding of education (including the function and value of exams).
This time, I’ve seen the pundits calling the 5% increase in public school results “good news.” That is “not” good news. Good news would be when all students who work hard formally complete high school, when assessment is meaningfully aligned with the process of education, when exams are used to identify the needs and to address them, when students from vastly underprivileged conditions don’t have to jump across a standardized and national obstacle that is obscenely beyond their reach.
The SLC is based on the primitive idea of education as acquiring/mastering a certain amount of knowledge content and intellectual skills in order to be formally “certified.” The idea of testing, certifying, and using the certificate for further education and jobs and general recognition of being educated is certainly an extremely convenient one. But it is an absurd idea because the moment we introduce the complexities of society and life from individual students’ perspectives, the system logically collapses on its own monstrous weight.
Let us imagine a few cases. A student has a learning disability that the system cannot accommodate and parents can’t address. Another comes from a linguistic/cultural background that creates a significant barrier compared to mainstream students. Another is brilliant in all subjects but not so in one or two; he has no support or resource to address the gap. Another is taught English by a teacher who never had the opportunity to learn that language well herself. A female student has terrible cramps due to her monthly cycle on one or more exam days, and she lives in a community that doesn’t address this challenge well. Another has to walk far too many hours to reach the exam center and do well. Another doesn’t have a social environment conducive to reading and writing. And then imagine—and this is actually the case—that countless cases like these involve many lakhs of students each, mostly in remote villages and underserved communities, communities where the students’ motivation and effort (or lack thereof) are relatively a minor reason for failure. Then compare students like the above against their counterparts in privileged families who don’t face many of these challenges, and they usually have the necessary support when they do.
The system doesn’t account for any complexities, variations, and inequities; it is run by a group of people at the center who believe that their job is just to test. It is not coordinated with the rest of the system of education, so when more than half of the students fail, there isn’t enough pressure to not repeat the disaster next year. Indeed, the society’s moral compass is broken here, because people in the system, the media, and the general public aren’t not really bothered by the failure of two-third of total SLC candidates from public schools (or even the failure of 90% of them if we count all students from first grade to tenth over time).
The SLC is also an invalid test: if we didn’t prepare most students to pass, why are we making them take it? We know in advance how many will fail! It is invalid because there is no causal relation, it doesn’t predict much, and it only assesses one dimension of education. The test is like a parasite that has killed the tree which it is feeding upon: preparing for this exam now means high school education. So, even improving pass rates to, say, 95% wouldn’t mean that that improved education itself. The real solution is to let the tree grow again, to contain or eliminate the parasite.
How do other societies run their systems, and could we learn from them? First, high school education doesn’t end with a test in many places, and that doesn’t bring an end to the world in those places. Also, the “advanced” nations don’t necessarily have the best systems when it comes to testing. Secondary education is increasingly undermined by private testing empires in the US; the UK has a notoriously standardized test-based education; France and Germany have their own problems. Many developing countries imitated (as did ours) bad ideas from somewhere and haven’t updated their systems yet: Turkey, Korea, and India come to mind here. But we don’t have to do what the UK or US do: we can learn from others, such as Japan, Singapore, and, increasingly, China, where the scope of education is being broadened, the role of testing being narrowed down.
Wherever there are more sensible systems, they have emerged out of better sense of justice and fairness, out of better definitions of education, out of the desire to put children and their futures first. Here are some ways in which we could learn to assess students’ learning, certify the levels of their proficiency, and help educators and the society assess how the system is working. We could let local school districts (governed by teachers, other experts, and parents) design their own curriculum, only assessing what they actually teach—for it is unethical and dangerous to test what isn’t taught. We could let students with different interests pursue different (including vocational) tracks after, say, the eighth grade (or tenth, if the SLC is eliminated, because there is already the twelfth grade as a pre-college milestone). We could get rid of the irrational idea that one cannot go to college without passing high school English, or math, or science (many of the contingencies I mentioned above would be addressed if passing in five or six out of seven subjects was acceptable). We could use the method of sampling (plus inspection and consultation), testing only a few students per district by using standard measures and using the results to provide feedback (trusting that teachers in the districts will not just eat the money and go home). We could use the idea of stealth assessment where testing is built into teaching so there is no anxiety, and attention can shift back to learning. We could use multiple measures—standardized testing being one—that includes the assessment of intellectual, emotional, social, and other proficiencies/developments among students. We could ask schools to locally evaluate portfolios of student learning created during the academic year, in place of putting a stamp of marks and percentage on students based on what they were able to write in three hours at the end of ten or twelve years. None of these are impossible ideas, though they may seem so for those in the empire of intellectual laziness that is in place now.
The objective of assessment must be education, and the objective of education must be our children’s and society’s collective ambitions to be educated and productive. And in order to align means with ends like that, we have to get rid of the utterly small-minded and backward idea of a nationalized exam that fails too many students, especially those who are already marginalized in society in many other ways.
It is time to flip the script. It is time to hold those who run the system responsible. And it is time for the public to wake up and stop accepting this perpetual, man-made social disaster as the norm.