Quality Education-Illusion of change

Illusion of change

by Swagat Raj Pandeymyrepublica.com

It has been reported that all students appearing in SLC exams will now automatically pass. But ‘all pass’ is more a myth than reality


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.

No change

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.

Misplaced focus

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

Posted in Quality Education News

Education is “blowin’ in the wind” for Nepal’s youth!

BlowinIf you are a parent sending your child to start school in Nepal today two issues should worry you; first, your child has only a 16% chance of passing the SLC. Second, the quality of the SLC is so low it is becoming an irrelevance anyway. If you are an employer you should also be worried; will you be able to recruit new staff who are well educated, with the right core competencies and who are committed and well motivated? If you are a student, you should be worried whether your education is preparing you for a “global life” or employment or for a satisfying career. These are all bleak signs for the nation as a whole.

A recent article by Kunda Dixit in the Nepali Times highlights a number of very concerning issues about education at a detailed and strategic level. He has ridiculed parts of the textbooks used containing errors, propaganda, and downright bad English; “School textbooks in Nepal have always been notorious for their substandard quality. They are poorly printed and produced and are awash in grammar, spelling, and typographical errors. More worryingly, they are rife with gender and racial stereotyping, brazen untruths, contradictions and examples of ethnocentrism.” Kunda has also demonstrated that the chances of improvement are downright nil because of the lack of competence or commitment to do anything to improve matters; “Dahal of Shikshak magazine thinks the education sector is not a priority for the government, and the most-neglected part of the Ministry of Education is the department looking after textbooks and the curriculum. It is a dumping site. That is where the least competent and motivated people are sent, he told us. In addition, Dilli Ram Rimal heads the Department of Education, and when we asked him about shoddy textbooks, his answer was emblematic of the pass-the-buck mentality that infests the government and also pointed to the reason why things are in such a sorry state. He replied: “It is not our job here to go through the content and quality of textbooks.”

Now, much as we agree with the importance of the points raised in this article, it’s prominence and range of responses is probably more related to the fame of the author and the publication rather than lasting outrage and desire for action. The furore over these textbooks will subside in a few days and disappear completely within a week or two. This is part of the ongoing tragedy for Nepal, there is no investigative or campaign journalism, and no journalist who shakes a particular tree until the leaves fall off. Education reform needs serious and continued advocacy, because the likes of Dilli Ram Rimal know fine well that criticising textbooks is a mere pinprick in the bigger scheme of things. Their motto revolves around the mantra of the all powerful SSRP taking time to bear fruit and they are doing their best under difficult circumstances. These are the people who think that 100 rupee scholarships, garlands for new enrollers, naming and shaming irregular teachers plus interactive whiteboards will solve everything. Plus of course the mandatory use of English medium being a panacea for quality education. What they and most education experts in Nepal have absolutely NO idea of is “how to change a complete system”. At the highest level all systems whether a banking system, a manufacturing system, or an education system have 4 major components. Within this, at the second level, there are 13 elements specific to an education system. Then, each of these 13 can be broken down into maybe 40 to 50 smaller items at the third level, and textbooks is one of these. System change needs to be planned at level 1, implemented strategically at level 2, with coordinated actions taken at level 3. Textbooks is at the lowest level of the system! So, unless this type of approach is taken by the MoE then there will be no system change no matter what educational experts may think, say or do. As Bob Dylan would say they are just “….. blowing in the wind”! And Nepal will remain a country of the uneducated.

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Quality Education In Nepal Primary Schools

Since the Muscat Agreement of 2014 a new set of goals, Sustainable Development Goals, have been put forward with Quality Education being one of them. This is something we have been advocating since 2009 when Nepal’s School Sector Reform Plan was published, because to focus on getting children INTO school without improving how they were educated when they got there was negligent to say the least.

Part of the problem has been caused by the complexity and a lack of clarity of the meaning of “quality education”, as well as knowledge of how to measure it and develop it. Frameworks had been developed over the years by UNESCO and UNICEF for example, but were largely forgotten or unused in the race to get more children into school. As practitioners trying to train teachers and to develop schools, the absence of a framework or model of quality education was a real hindrance; how could we get somewhere if we didn’t know where we were going? In our opinion this is a recipe for ad hoc approaches and piecemeal courses and programmes instead of systemic transformation of the whole system. Unsurprisingly this is what we see happening in Nepal, and our network of other organisations working in African countries paints a similar picture.

Our success in developing many Kathmandu primary schools has been achieved because we were able to create a framework defining quality education which was clear, measurable and practical. We have developed tools to ensure that quality is improving, that teachers change behaviour, that principals and school management committees provide effective leadership, and that more children are retained for longer. We are constantly seeking more public primary schools to join the programme, it’s free ……. and can be fun too!

Some of the research conducted into the development of quality is now being made public and you can download a copy of the descriptive article above or here Quality Education Research and if you know of a school who we should work with ask them to contact Sangita Bhandari on (Nepal) 9841 828545.

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