Published in The Kathmandu Post

On SLC and Assessments

It’s time for our school system to rethink how they conduct assessments and why

Jun 16, 2014-The dismal School Leaving Certificate (SLC) result of government school students has shamed all Nepalis this week. What is even more alarming is the declining trend of pass percentage in recent years. In 2011, the pass percentage was 47 percent whereas this year, it is less than 29 percent. Compare that alongside the increasing government expenditure on education. In 2011, the education budget was almost Rs 58 billion whereas in 2014 the number went up to Rs 82 billion.

The numbers starkly reveal the irony. But that is just the quantitative story, which does not quite make sense. The questions being asked no doubt have to do with a qualitative approach.

In graduate school, where I was getting ready to be a teacher, a lot of time was spent on discussions and readings that provided an in-depth, rigorous approach to education. Open-ended, ideological questions were posed at us: What is the purpose of education? What does learning really mean? How do we motivate students? What is the role of assessments? We were compelled to examine our own attitudes on education and search through classic readings to find out if any historical thinker supported our ideas.

I wonder how many government school teachers have been given similar opportunities. I wonder how many of them even have had time to think about these issues. Therein lies the problem in our system.

There have been rumours that the government is planning to do away with SLC altogether. Rather than focus on examining students after the tenth grade, they are considering waiting until students reach twelfth grade so that our system aligns more closely with the Indian one and also with most Western institutions. If this is true, the government deserves credit for being critical and willing to revise a traditional approach. But let us look more closely at the basic idea of exams and assessments.

Why are exams important?

Exams usually take a lot of time and resources. And they cause unnecessary stress to students, especially to the younger ones. Teachers have always complained about grading student papers. It is not the most stimulating part of the job. Yet, exams seem to be an integral part of any educational system. Perhaps it is time to reconsider their role in education and how we manage and present them.

I learned that most assessments should be conducted only if they have some kind of purpose; mainly if they serve a teacher’s teaching. Before and during assessments, that purpose should be communicated very carefully and clearly to students so that they get an idea of the bigger picture and not get stuck only in scoring higher numbers.

Two assessments

There are two kinds of assessments: Summative and formative. Summative assessments, recommended less than formative assessments, are usually conducted at the end of units, semesters and school years. Summative assessments are meant to ‘sum up’ a teacher’s or school’s teaching. It gives one a rough idea of a certain group of students, what was covered during the year and what was the range in performance. Administrators can reflect on summative assessments in order to plan for future years. The SLC exams are an example of summative assessments.

Formative assessments are far more important to students and teachers. They are conducted frequently, informally and are usually all-encompassing. A teacher who walks into a classroom and notices five students focused and studying whereas the rest of his class chit-chatting subconsciously assesses the situation and may plan to give a consequence to the noisy group and reward the diligent ones. Another example: during quiet reading, a teacher may notice some students faking reading, some having comprehension issues and others unable to read. She may plan the following days’ lessons based on this observation. These are examples of formative assessments.

Any teacher who has classroom experience naturally conducts some kind of formative assessment. The practice is intrinsically related to the idea of being a teacher. But effective school systems find ways to formalise formative assessments, design professional development around them and provide structures and models to teachers so that they can implement these processes in their classrooms.

I am not sure how much of this is a part of our government schools’ practice and teacher training sessions.

Formative assessments, by definition, are meant to form a teacher’s teaching on a very regular basis. They involve close observations, one-on-one and small group work with students and intense planning in order to target various student needs and differentiate her instruction accordingly. Formative assessments also form students during the course of their time in a classroom. Meaningful interactions with teachers who understand their struggles are likely to make them more motivated and engaged.

Teachers who conduct formative assessments are thoughtful, reflective and take copious notes about their observations. They constantly try to find new ways to help struggling students. They usually do not stick to the same lesson and the same textbook. These teachers also understand that the struggling students may need slightly more of their time than the top few. In other words, these teachers do not judge their teaching by highlighting the scores of their top five students. Rather, they reflect on their teaching by measuring student growth. Was I able to improve the scores of these few students from the middle of the school year to the end? If not, why? What could I do differently next time?

Time to reflect

High-functioning school systems find a way to mix summative and formative assessments so that teachers can balance their workload and the students are best served. These school systems also closely supervise their teachers and provide regular feedback and professional development. Throughout the school year, conversations about assessments and their role are ongoing.

It is high time that the Nepali government starts putting these systems in place so that we are continually assessing students throughout the year and addressing their needs. Focusing our attention on one big examination every year—the SLC—is not helpful. The SLC results may not provide an accurate picture and they do not necessarily serve students. More importantly, they do not, in most cases, help students’ moral and intellectual growth.

Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu

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