Open schools, but reduce exam pressure

By Sujata Gamage and Tara de Mel

The urgency of getting children back to school at the first opportunity is accepted worldwide, but COVID-19 has also brought three other issues to the fore internationally – (1) Ethics of conducting competitive examinations when significant portions of the students have been left out of education (2) Wisdom of continuing same old education when a full return to normalcy is not in sight (3) The need for combining face-2-face and distance mode of teaching and learning as the new normal.

Meanwhile here in Sri Lanka, our Ministry of Education goes about as if it is business as usual.  Dates for exams are scheduled, postponed, and rescheduled. There seems to be no intention of seeking alternatives to the “covering the syllabus to prepare children for exams” approach to education.

While we appreciate the government’s initiatives in the health front to reopen schools, we cannot be happy about the pedagogical aspects.  Covering 20 months of missed work in distance mode or even in reopened schools is simply not possible, but examination pressures leave teachers with no other choice.  The ministry should not continue to act like the proverbial ostrich anymore. It must reduce the examination pressures on students and teachers after consulting a broad spectrum of stakeholders.

Our own work has revealed that Sri Lanka’s school curricula are overloaded with content and teachers feed the same for regurgitation by children at term-tests three times a year and three national tests at Grade 5, 1, and 13.

Contrary to popular belief, our exams too are nothing to be proud of. They test concepts, procedures, and problem solving within a national examination bubble with a self-referential curriculum in the form of past papers. Studies show that when mathematics question papers, say, are set according to international standards such as TIMMS which require knowing, applying, and reasoning in a broader context, our students do poorly.

It is not too late. If the central government does the right thing to reduce examination pressures, our schools and local education authorities have the know-how to give our children a good education even under the present trying circumstances.

Therefore, we urge the government to take the following actions:

Ministry of Education

  1. Schedule GCE A/L exam only after providing adequate catch-up opportunities to applicants
  2. Postpone all other exams till August 2022
  3. Expedite the health measures required for reopening of schools
  4. Negotiate in good faith to bring teachers and principals back to work

Provincial/Zonal/School Authorities

  1. Freed of examination constraints, reorient education to its true intent
  2. Prepare for uncertainties by adopting hybrids of face-to-face and distance education modes

 The GCE A/L Examination is a defining milestone for our youth. Therefore, we urge the government to take every effort to conduct the GCE A/L examination ensuring equality of opportunity to all first-time applicants.

Schools should be opened at the earliest for A/L students and government TV channels or government-sponsored private satellite TV channels should be dedicated to this exam. (The value of TV broadcasts for other grades is another matter that should be evaluated). The examination date should be set only after 3 months or more after such measures are in place.

The GCE O/L Examination need not be a life-determining event. Government can provide a test bank of diagnostic tests for the three national languages and math for use by schools and individuals at end of years 5, 9, 11, if streaming students into various streams of study is necessary.

Grade 5 Scholarship Examination (G5SE): 2022 is not a good time to move children entering Grade 6 to schools away from home. The Grade 5 examination can be offered in 2022 August for children who are technically in Grade 5 and Grade 6 that year and admit them to popular schools in 2023 for Grade 6 and Grade 7, respectively.

Teachers’ Strike: The education of our children is in the hands of teachers and principals who are closest to the children. Until the teachers’ strike, they have been doing their best to reach out to the children without any recognition or support from the Ministry of Education. It is the Ministry’s turn to give the teachers the respect and recognition they deserve.

Reorienting the Teaching and Learning Process: Competencies defined in the curriculum say all the right things about what children should know and can do, but examination pressures have grossly distorted the teaching and learning process. The pandemic is an opportunity to reorient education to its intended purpose.

  • Above all, focus on the social-emotional-physical development of children
  • Help all students to get up to speed on language and math using diagnostic tests as guides
  • Teach all other subjects through activity-based modules that are self-directed by students.

If our schools choose to free themselves from examinations in Grades 1-9 at least, children will not only receive the benefits of a holistic education but do better at examinations in Grades 11 and 13, we have reasons to believe.

Hybrid Mode as the Norm: It would be foolhardy to think that schools can be kept open as before. As teachers and principals point out, it will be hard to keep children apart and strictly observe social distancing. The direction of this pandemic is uncertain. It is best that each school community adopts a practice that suits it best. Ministry of Education should follow their lead and provide resources as needed. Various hybrid modes of combining in-class learning with home-based learning must be tested.

These proposals are not just wishful thinking. Bold experiments are taking place. Stay tuned for more. Meanwhile, ask your child’s school why they are continuing with business as usual.

-Sujata Gamage and Tara de Mel are co-coordinators of Educational Forum Sri Lanka an independent platform that engages with experts and stakeholders from multiple sectors in order to catalyze policy reforms in education using evidence-based interventions


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