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Beyond exams

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 12 October 2019 00:00


A letter purportedly written by a student on the harsh treatment faced because of low marks scored at the Grade 5 scholarship exam has been widely circulated on Twitter during the last few days, so much so that it has been tagged for response from presidential candidates.

Discourse on the exam has been evolving among the public for some time, especially as President Maithripala Sirisena earlier this year proposed that it should be discontinued. Does the exam actually achieve what it sets out to do, which is provide better futures for its best scorers? 

The possibility of cancellation has triggered strong debate between people who believe that it would deprive promising students from poorer backgrounds access to good schools and others who feel that the exam is simply too stressful for young children and therefore should be scrapped. 

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) publishing a short research on the proposal tracked 859 students who scored highest in the scholarship exam in 2008. IPS found that of these students an impressive 80% not only passed their Advanced Level exams but also did so well enough to get university admission. Many of them also qualified from the science stream, which is considered important given the knowledge-driven economy of the future. 

IPS goes on to observe that the fact that many high-scoring scholarship students continue to do well at their A-Levels, nine years on, across subject streams and income levels, is uplifting. This observation, however, does not necessarily support the argument that the scholarship exam identifies the most intelligent students; in the sample of schools considered, even those who do not score top marks in Grade 5 subsequently perform well at the A-Levels. 

It is possible that students who enter good schools from Grade 1 itself put less effort into performing well at the scholarship exam since they have less of a need to do so. Another explanation is that access to high-quality education in urban privileged schools, and to tuition classes in surrounding areas, enable students to do well at the A-Levels, irrespective of performance at the scholarship exam. The importance of the scholarship exam is, therefore, to provide opportunities to rural disadvantaged students to enter such good schools for secondary education.

It is estimated that only about 20% of students who sit for the exam get entry into better schools. But IPS data that shows irrespective of the school, students perform well when they are motivated and have access to resources. This means that it is effective to widen the timeline from Grade 1 admission stage to interim grades, as well as the current practice of increasing the number of classes from Grade 6 onwards in several large national schools. Another essential and more long-term option is to improve the quality of education in more schools – particularly those in rural areas – so that more students have access to better-quality education.

The Government may contend that its current ‘Closest School is the Best School’ program meets this need, but it takes more than buildings to create a good school. Teacher shortages remain a real problem in Sri Lanka and good teachers are rare. Encouraging students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects is also needed to meet economic needs. So while improving school infrastructure it is also important to consider re-establishing high-quality distinct primary and secondary schools. This would lessen pressure on popular schools and provide better education to more students. In the short term, changing the grading system so extracurricular activities also play a role might lessen the pressure felt by students.

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