The government has announced that a decision has not yet been taken about when the Secondary Education Examination (SEE) will be held this year. However, in a recent interview the Minister for Education, Science and Technology Giriraj Mani Pokharel expressed concern about the possible breakdown of the academic calendar due to COVID-19 and stated his desire to schedule the SEE for the middle of June. We need to give serious thought to whether this rescheduling is in the best interest of the 482,219 young people involved.
To begin with, it would have been good not to mention a date, amidst current uncertainties about how the pandemic will affect the country. But more importantly, this lockdown is an opportunity to rethink the very idea of the SEE, which was introduced in place of the tried-and-tested School Leaving Certificate (SLC) in 2017. There are many things that need to be done in order to improve the quality of education for children in Nepal, and the cancellation of the SEE is one of them. While this was a fact even before COVID-19, the pandemic and lockdown have provided us with the opportunity to think outside the box and to push for positive change.
The logistics of exams
Minister Pokharel’s suggestions regarding the logistics of holding the examinations are unrealistic. He suggests two specific changes in the administration of the exams. The first is to have the examination centers placed within walking distance of the students’ homes, and the second is to conduct exams in three shifts each day.
With regard to creating examination centers within walking distance, we have to keep in mind that students from all over the country, whether they attend public or private schools, will be taking this exam. Is the government thinking of home centers only in certain districts or all over the country? Who will be responsible for making this arrangement? The municipalities, wards, or schools? What kind of financial and human resources will be required, and what is the time frame within which the job must be completed? The logistics seem vast and complicated, and one wonders if serious thought has been given to these matters by the ministry.
The proposition to have three exams per day also has to be studied well. Each exam runs for three hours. It is said that the students will eat at home before coming to the exam center. This means that they will be at the centers for 11 hours (three three-hour exams and two one-hour breaks in between). Such an arrangement will be nothing less than torturous for these students.
How do the professionals at the Ministry of Education expect students to be ready to give exams in three different subjects every day? And how will they write in a focused manner for nine long hours? What is the benefit to the students in doing this?
Minister Pokharel says in the interview: “The ministry is working out a system by which the upcoming academic year will not be affected.” He says that if the exams are held by the middle of June (end of Jeth), and if the results are out in a month instead of the over two months it generally takes, if the summer and winter holidays are cancelled, if festival holidays are not given, and if extra classes are conducted, then the next academic year could be saved.
We have to accept that the pandemic has already disrupted the academic calendar the world over. Our decisions should be made taking this into consideration instead of being in denial of this fact. Furthermore, we must ask, given the nature of the SEE, if this misery inflicted on millions of children, guardians and educators at all worth it? What is the benefit in going ahead as the ministry plans?
The postponement of SEE
The Secondary Education Examination (SEE) was scheduled for March 19 to 30, and was postponed the evening before the start. Altogether 482,219 students were sitting for the SEE this academic year in 1,995 examination centers across the country. While the government had already enforced limits on travel, placed strictures on the number of people gathering (25), and mandated schools and colleges to close, it was still hoping to conduct the SEE because, according the ministry, “any delay could hamper the academic calendar”.
The decision to postpone the SEE examinations was made on the eve of their start, by which time tens of thousands of students who were not local residents had already travelled to exam centers and paid for room and board for the duration of the exams. However, we should not jump to criticism of this decision, because there was no knowing at the time what the best mode of action would be. The novel coronavirus pandemic was just unfolding in Nepal and the South Asian region as a whole, with very few cases of infection, and the ministry was understandably tempted to complete the exams. However, in the end it erred on the side of caution and this was a good decision.
Why SEE must be annulled
The government’s apparent plans to conduct the SEE two weeks after the lockdown is lifted need to be revised for the following reasons.
First, let us understand the nature of the SEE. This examination system is new to Nepal, having replaced the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examination in 2017. According to the government, the difference between the SLC and the SEE is that while the former was based on numerical marks, the latter is a letter-graded system. However, the true difference between the two examinations is that the SEE has been designed to allow the maximum number of students to pass.
In the past academic year, 460,000 students sat for the SEE, and only 1.8 percent scored below ‘D’and thus were considered unsuccessful. The rest, over 98%, passed. This is in stark contrast to the average 42% pass rate under the SLC exam system. If the intention behind conducting the SEE for this year’s tenth graders is to identify students with weak academics, this goal will not be met, because nearly all students pass the SEE.
The second point to consider is that school education for Nepal, as recommended by the School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP)and adopted by the government, is completed in Grade 12 (basic education is Grade 1-8, and high school is Grades 9-12).Therefore SEE is not a ‘school-leaving’ test that certifies a student’s capacity to move from the school to the college level. In the main, SEE is meant as a screening tool for students going from Grade 10 to Grade 11 within the same school. Its significance as a nationwide examination does not compare to that of the SLC that preceded it. Even that significance is diminished by the fact that next to everyone passes.
When we look at these facts, it becomes clear that for the past few years the government has been expending vast amounts of time, energy, and resources for something of very little consequence. While we should have studied the appropriateness of the SEE anyway, the COVID-19 crisis has forced us to sit up and take notice. Several individuals and institutions are now doing so, such as the Ganesh Man Singh Adhyayan Pratishthaan, which has recommended the cancellation of the SEE exams.
To reiterate, under the current system, school-leaving is after the 12th grade, and there is little need for the National Examinations Board (NEB) to conduct SEE to simply ensure movement from Grade 10 to Grade 11.The NEBcan focus on holding the 12th grade examinations well and can do away with examinations in Grades 10 and 11. In the meantime, the government must start a public information campaign to ensure that there is full understanding among the public that Grade 12 – not Grade 10 – is the end point of school education. This should be done not merely as a recommendation to students, but as a declaration of what the current schooling system is.
Trust the schools
The removal of the SEE is also an opportunity to have schools to do their own evaluation of students at the end of tenth grade. In the past, the government (as well as larger society) has been worried that letting schools conduct the examinations will result in cheating and this fear has necessitated the tremendous resources required for centrally administered examinations. Given that centralized examinations should now be reserved for Grade 12, there will be little lost – and a lot to be gained – by allowing schools, both public and private, to provide their own evaluations to students. This will be an opportunity for schools to engage in real teaching instead of merely teaching for the test.
Thus, teachers would assess their students’ performances throughout the year to provide letter grades for their students: Distinctions, A’s, B’s, C’s, etcetera. This is an opportunity to make schools more accountable and honest in grading, because the grading will be meant for students who continue within the institutions themselves. Over time, those schools that are too lenient in their markings will be ‘found out’ when students finally graduate in Grade 12, hence there will be an incentive to provide authentic evaluation of students throughout the school years.
The question may arise as to what can be done with students who study only until Grade 10. First, the government must try and ensure that henceforth all students end their schooling in Grade 12, because in terms of maturity as well as in terms of job prospects, to study until this grade is important. However, in the event that for whatever personal, financial or livelihood reason a student does end schooling in Grade 10, the National Examination Board must certify the grades provided by the individual schools. For these students, the government must also invest in vocational education.
Schools know their students best, and this will be an opportune moment for the ministry to work on the basis of trust and have them send the marks for the tenth-grade certificate.As they get used to the new system, schools will have the confidence to send authentic grades because they have taken care of these students over many years. The government can use a general guide based on schools’ exam records of the previous years in order to examine authenticity.
Just as the schools upgrade students from Grades 1 through 9 each year, they should be able to upgrade them from Grade 10 to 11. The practice of continuous assessment on a daily basis, if done well, will give teachers much better information on the students’overall strengths than a one-time final examination. It is, therefore, not advisable to give too much importance to the SEE.
Consider the situation in which a student leaving Grade 10 in one high school wants to enroll in another high school’s Grade 11. In such cases, the student will have to sit for the entrance examination of the school into which he/she is seeking admission.
Providing a better learning environment
If schools are given the opportunity to evaluate their own students, they can evaluate them on a broad range of capacities. This will be a much more holistic evaluation than the present three-hour subject exam that tests primarily content rather than skills. It will encourage teachers to start taking their jobs more seriously and to provide individual oversight to each child, figuring out what they have leant and where they need further support. Students will learn to nurture a multitude of skills and interests rather than focusing on passing an examination. The present trend of cheating to pass the exams would be made redundant and each school would know the strengths of the students much better.
With students and teachers both being asked to be honest about their work, we will be grooming citizens who are upright and honest about what they know and where they need help. The ministry, for its part, can make effective use of the National Assessment for Student Achievement (NASA) and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to gather information on how each school fares within the country, and how our student performance compares internationally. It can focus on providing training on how to empower teachers, school leaders, parents and students themselves on the importance of honest and sincere work.
In conclusion, the ministry must take a serious look into the matter of the SEE. If the International Baccalaureate and the Cambridge International Examinations can do this for schools all over the world, Nepal can surely trust its own schools. All educators know that it is trust itself that inculcates honesty. This is the time to set an example and take bold decisions considering what benefits the students the most. This is, therefore, an opportunity to do away with the SEE not just for this year, but for good. This decision would be part of the long-haul campaign ahead of us to improve schooling in Nepal so that our children can have the bright future they deserve.