Posted May 06, 2016 by Faisal Bari

This blog post originally appeared in Dawn, on May 06, 2016.

JUNAID had one bad day in his academic career. His entry test for medical school proved disastrous. He did very well in his matriculation and intermediate examinations. But the entry test was a disaster. He now has the option of either waiting for a year to reappear in the examination or do something else with his life and not become a doctor. But he has dreamed of becoming a doctor for a long time; he has worked hard all his life to achieve this objective.

Should the future of a young person, in terms of career prospects, be so dependent on his or her performance on a single day? Should the work that he or she has put in for at least 12 years not be counted as important? Should any examination be allowed to carry such weight when it comes to taking decisions about one’s future?

High-stakes examinations create a number of problems. A bad day at the examination centre can have a long-term impact on one’s career. High-stakes examinations also create problems in terms of learning and teaching to the test.

Where the teachers are concerned, if high-stakes examinations are used to evaluate their performance in any way, to determine their salaries, increments, promotions and to make posting/transfer decisions, they would have a strong incentive to have their students do well in these exams. They would teach to the test, take a lot of time preparing their students just for these examinations, and even stoop to illegal or immoral means to ensure good results. All of this undermines the purpose of education.

There is plenty of evidence suggesting that even the Punjab Examination Commission exams for grade five create the dynamics mentioned. Teachers start preparing for PEC examinations at the start of grade five and sometimes even before the students have completed grade four.

As they approach examination time, they keep narrowing their focus, restricting it solely to the examinations.

There is no question of learning or ensuring comprehension; it is all about the students’ ability to produce good answers. It is easy, under these circumstances, to resort to rote learning. This inculcates poor learning habits in children. There have been plenty of incidents of corruption and cheating as well. Students cheat to get higher marks, teachers try to facilitate that to look good, and private schools attempt to cheat, or pay examination graders or PEC officials to get good results for their schools.

On the students’ side, if examinations are high-stakes, they will also do all they can to perform well in them. Rote learning becomes the norm. Students resort to post-school tuitions or enrol themselves in evening schooling programmes (academies that make you cram for your exams) to ensure better performance. And cheating in examinations also becomes more frequent and, potentially, more acceptable — ‘the future of my child is at stake’.

High-stakes examinations also tend to be more centralised and are required to be conducted over a shorter period of time. We cannot hold high-stakes examinations as a form of continuous assessment. This limits the kind of assessment that can be used for such examinations. We usually resort to multiple choice or short-answer questions for such examinations. These types of questions can only gauge learning in a limited spectrum. This creates a bias where teaching and learning methods are concerned.

My experience with university-level teaching and examinations using such tools shows that sometimes we can end up producing graduates who do not even know how to write decently, how to come up with a coherent argument or how to articulate their position effectively. If graduates do not have the skills mentioned here, should we really consider them literate?

The demand for introducing high-stakes examinations is coming from various directions. We want to have good statistics to know what our children are learning. We think this can only be achieved through high-stakes examinations. We have introduced many examinations for doing that. We have raised the stakes for grades nine and 10 examinations, grade 11 and 12 examinations, and through PEC Punjab has also introduced grade five and grade eight examinations. Other provinces are also beginning to introduce such exams in the lower grades.

We want to discipline, motivate and monitor teachers and want to make them deliver. We feel the performance of children and gauging what they learn is an easy way to judge teacher performance. Exam results are used as carrot and stick for teacher appraisal and reward and punishment.

We want ‘objective’ criteria for selection and admission decisions for various posts as well as university positions. We do not want ‘subjective’ variables to come in.

So, we have either removed the role of interviews or reduced its importance in most processes. Instead, we have introduced tests. The National Testing Service does many of these tests for us. Though we have no data on the quality of tests that NTS sets, or on the validity of what they measure, we have chosen to rely on them. Often enough, the interests of ‘transparency’ and ‘objectivity’ trump better selections.

Even in cases where we know that subjective and hard-to-measure factors are important in determining the suitability of a candidate, for example in the selection of teachers, we have still chosen to go with NTS tests and ‘objective’ measures.

High-stakes examinations are all the rage. But they have intended and numerous unintended consequences.

They warp learning. They create poor incentives for teachers as well as for students. They set incentives for cheating and corruption. They can have significant impact on the field of education, and on how and what our children learn and how their future is shaped.

We have involved ourselves in preparing and using such examinations with far too much enthusiasm and without due debate in society — a debate that needs to take place now.