In the context of Nepal, one of the key aspects of school education is the examination system which helps materialize the abstract notion of ‘quality’ in education. Examination system reflects the understanding and legitimacy of ‘quality education’ that everyone agrees on. In that sense, the general understanding of ‘quality education’ has been associated with the marks received in exams. Students securing more marks are considered ‘good’ students and schools with greater percentage of students with high marks are considered ‘good’ schools.
Interestingly, this understanding of quality in relation to test scores is not only commonsensical, but an accepted policy practice in Nepal. Carney and Bista (2009), in their paper on genealogy of education reform since 1990, mention members of the team involved in preparing the second master plan sharing that the “…test scores became the one and only criterion of quality of education. All of us understood quality from that perspective.”Given such domination of ‘test scores’ and their association with quality, the decision to introduce ‘letter grading’ in SLC exams comes as a welcome relief. The Office of Controller of Examinations piloted letter grading with 99 technical schools last year and it will be implemented in ‘regular’ SLC exams from this year. Incidentally, the much-hyped introduction of grading system in SLC examinations is being seen as a panacea. But the wider context is important.
This government decision, in reality, does not bring any significant change in assessment processes or systems. Apparently, the decision on letter grading is more a response to reduce student suicides after SLC results and improve the rate of return in education financing rather than a concerted effort to change the assessment system per se. The only evident change is the change of ‘mark sheet’ into ‘grade sheet’. In fact, the numbers obtained by students will simply be converted into ‘letters’. This means there is no impact on how teachers teach, students learn, or how the assessment is made.
It has been reported that all students appearing in SLC exams will henceforth automatically ‘pass’. But ‘all pass’ is more a myth more than reality. Unlike the earlier ‘mark sheet’ that mentioned ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, the new ‘grade sheet’ will not mention ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ but simply present the grades and grade point received. This means that while no student is labeled as ‘failed’, not everyone is necessarily ‘pass’ as well. In addition, there is ambiguity over whether all of them would be allowed to pursue further education.
One major drawback of this decision is lack of wider consultation with stakeholders, both within and outside the education system. This has contributed to confusion. Since the grade system has been hastily brought, it lacks ownership and with it there is the risk that it won’t be able to serve its primary purpose.
Despite lack of consultations, the decision to implement ‘letter grading’ in SLC exams has been made. So how will the new ‘grade sheet’ look? What does getting A+, B, C, D, E or N actually mean? Will the students receiving D or E or N be able to pursue higher education? How will the admission criteria in class 11 be changed? While the issue of interpretation is important enough once grade sheets are handed out, the focus on the interpretation negates a more pertinent question of the reform of assessment system.
The School Sector Reform Plan and now the School Sector Development Plan both envisage and provision for structural reform in education, with class 1-8 designated as basic education and 9-12 as secondary education. This also means that class 10 exams would no longer be the school leaving exams. With such plans in hand, introducing letter grading in SLC exams for class 10 in such haste raises issues of credibility and intention. Moreover, as evident in the case of students from technical SLCs last year now enrolled in class 11, the HSEB will continue to use the earlier forms of test scores, creating a disjoint between the letter grading in SLC and test scores in other classes.
The study on the learning outcomes of grade 8 students in 2011 clearly highlights that students are good in tasks related to memorization and recall but not those related to application or to abilities at higher cognitive levels. Based on this, it has explicitly provided recommendations to the SLC Examination Board, emphasizing the need to rethink examinations to incorporate applicable skills and allow for creative thinking.
The current assessment system solely depends on question papers, with primary on lower order cognitive skills. Lack of coherence in curriculum and question paper is a stark reality of the assessment system in Nepal. The question papers and the examinations do not necessarily measure what they are really supposed to measure—problem-solving and other applicable skills. In that sense, the measurement derived from such assessment would not be valid, whether it’s depicted in numbers or grades.
Performance of students is attributed to various factors ranging from pedagogy, socio-economic conditions, learning environment and their cognitive development. While these attributes are responsible for how students perform, it is imperative that students are examined on what they actually need to learn.
Even with reservations, schools, parents and students will gradually acclimatize themselves to the new ‘grade sheet’. This, I would argue, would be much more problematic as once the rest of the stakeholders start getting used to the change to ‘grade sheet’ from ‘mark sheet’, the major issues and concerns related to the overall reform of the assessment system would continue to be neglected.
In order to improve teaching-learning process, the essential benchmark of ‘quality education’ —the assessment system—needs to be reformed. On that regard, the idea of introducing ‘letter grading’ in assessment is praiseworthy; however, the risk lies in its realization and unquestioned implementation. Given the outright failure and mockery of Continuous Assessment System (CAS) with similar philosophical approach, there is a fear that this letter grading system, too, would fail. The ‘letter grading’ is essential but we could have been better prepared.
The author is a Program Officer at the Alliance for Social Dialogue