The overall literacy rate in Pakistan stands at 57%, with females lagging far behind males with a mere 45% literacy rate, along with a severe urban-rural disparity. While bridging the literacy gap remains a major challenge for policymakers, what lies behind this so-called literate population paints even a grimmer picture. The social media is rampant with viral video clips, depicting a telltale of public education system. On the one hand, government mathematics teachers are seen being grilled for not knowing the most fundamental arithmetic concepts and on the other English teachers are unable to even speak one full sentence devoid of mistakes. Hoards of degree holders are knocking on the doors of employers everyday, who when interviewed are found to not even know a fraction of what their shining degrees promise. It is appalling that hundreds of thousands of such students with inconceivably deficient skills are able to complete ten, twelve, fourteen or even sixteen years of education within the present educational system.
While the poor quality of education stems from various reasons, ranging from inadequate resource provision to inefficient utilisation and from outdated teaching methodologies to absence of a teacher accreditation system, the lack of an objective and efficient examination system provides the most critical bottleneck, due to which students without requisite knowledge are able to move up the ladder, ending up contributing to unemployment or under-employment.
The present system of exams is based on memorisation without any regard to students’ comprehension, independent thinking, or creative skills. Besides this conceptual weakness, the whole system is also rife with major operational challenges, such as badly designed question papers not fully reflecting the curriculum, poor choice of examiners, non-transparent invigilation processes and an archaic marking system, undermining the whole foundation of prevailing student evaluation processes. The system incentivises teachers to teach to the test, rather than focusing on improving students’ learning, resulting in a wide gap between students’ performance in exams and their actual skills. Fortunately, these problems have now been caught by policymakers’ radars. Punjab, in particular, has been a pioneer in taking the initial steps towards addressing these challenges. The examination reforms, led by Punjab Examination Commission (PEC) and supported through the UK government funded ‘Second Punjab Education Sector Project’, are focusing on students assessments based on learning outcomes. These reforms are aimed at promoting quality of learning and teaching along with improving performance, transparency and accountability of the elementary school examination system. Presently, PEC, an autonomous government organisation, conducts annual examination of more than two million students of grades five and eight. These tests present a remarkable improvement from traditional examination papers, making use of a wider set of questions to effectively test students for their understanding and application of knowledge of the whole curriculum. PEC is also endeavouring to address the operational weaknesses through use of psychometric analysis, computerised student registration and multiple versions of each exam to prevent cheating, etc.
This transformation in examination system however is just the start towards improving quality of education in the country. Other provinces should follow similar footsteps and embrace a system for objective students’ assessments. Even in Punjab, there is a need to further embed the system within the overall educational governance framework. For instance, in order to fully benefit from this massive pool of insightful information collected on student learning, the findings must be channelled back to improve curriculum and teaching methodology. The learning should also inform the training programmes for teachers in deficient areas. Moreover, these assessments must also cover private schools and ideally be made mandatory for entry into secondary school exams. Last but not the least, any changes in examination system must be supported by meaningful reforms in other complementary areas such as enhanced budgets for quality-related interventions, curriculum improvement and gradually moving towards a teacher accreditation system.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2017.