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Exams in interesting times

Last four years have been educational minefield for Pakistan's students. Their futures hang in balance

By Yusra Salim |
Design by: Mohsin Alam
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PUBLISHED June 04, 2023

Who would have thought that there would be a time when students are sad and frustrated with the news of cancellation of examinations rather than celebrating the idea that they don’t have to sit for examinations? The issues that have developed in the in the education system in the last few years are not just frustrating but also exhausting for students who study the whole year to gain marks in specific subjects, but then without much notification, their scheduled examinations are cancelled, and future of their studies hangs with either projected marks or an overall average of other subjects.

In the last four years, almost everyone in Pakistan has suffered because of COVID-19. Thousands were laid off. The future of the young became stagnant with examination cancellations. In 2020, students who were trying to go abroad faced difficulties because of predicted marks. Many were deprived of the chance to get into the universities for which they had prepared.

The situation worsened this year when political unrest and deterioration in law and order created immense difficulties for students. In Punjab, Boards of Intermediate and Secondary Education rescheduled examinations, whereas in Sindh examinations happened as scheduled. In the wake of the law-and-order situation, the Cambridge International Examination (CIE) had to be cancelled across the country.

Students' ordeal

The current situation may have been frustrating for many, but it has also benefitted a few. Some students have scored well in particular components. “For me, the situation worked out because each subject has various components; for example, in chemistry I gave three components in the first year and had to give two in the second year. This year, it was announced that because of cancellation of exams, around 18 percent of that specific year’s components should be already given, and only then one can get average grades of that component,” explained the 18-year-old Huzaifa Alam who sat for his A2 this year.

Alam said that the situation worked for him as his first three papers went well, and he hopes that he has aced them. He will be given average marks for the components of the two papers that were cancelled. “For those students who didn’t do well in earlier components, it will eventually affect their grades,” he explained.

Amidst the ongoing uncertainty, it was expected that the examination schedules could also be affected. After the upheavals of 2020 and 2021, everyone had that in mind, and even their teachers kept reminding them to be prepared, a warning that some students took seriously, and some didn’t. “The Cambridge exams authorities realized that student-assessed grades wouldn't work this time as previously students didn’t like the grades they were given, evoking an outcry across the board,” explains Alam who based on his first-year grades has already been accepted into a university.

Alam got into the University of Arizona because many US universities, unlike the ones in the UK and some other regions, offer admission on the predicted grades of the first-year results. “For the majority of the US universities, second-year grades don’t matter, and classes start before the final results. Obviously, grades matter in attainment of scholarships,” says Alam, adding that the rules vary from region to region. In Pakistan, almost all universities rely on their entrance exams and not just previous results. They have an eligibility criterion but that’s minimal, as 80 percent of applicants easily get to sit for the entrance exam.

CIE also gives students the opportunity to re-appear in the October-November series of exams, but in that case, results come in January, and students have to skip one semester. “I had to give the Oct-Nov series back in 2021 when I was in O-levels because I didn’t take student assessed grades. I am not someone who studies the whole year, and those grades would have affected my overall grades,” Alam shares. He is already admitted into a college as due to the pandemic colleges were very lenient and removed many requirements. However, as the current situation is purely related to Pakistan, foreign universities will follow their own rules without giving the applicants any concessions.

Parents’ concerns

Misery of students is a huge deal, but they are not the only ones suffering. Parents also go through a lot with concerns about their children’s future. Fatima Nouman, mother of two, has been quite affected from the last four years of examination related problems. Both of her children are in the CIE system. “My son was taking this exam as composite as he was giving AS and A2 together, which was a lot for him, and therefore this cancellation was a huge setback,” she sighed. Nouman added that as Cambridge has similar rules, courses, papers and criterion for India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, the examination system is also the same. Cancellation of one paper means the threshold of other would be compromised if any retake is to be demanded. Say, 10,000 students from Pakistan have missed the paper, for them it's like starting from scratch.

Talking about the impact that exam cancellation leaves on a student, Nouman said that kids are mostly happy because they are freed of the pressure of giving an exam or scoring well. And if their grades are low, they would have the excuse of cancellation of their papers. They don’t realise the long-term consequences and how it could impact their prospects. “With relief, they are also disappointed because they study the whole year; this one-day notice cancellation before the exam causes disruption in their academic routines,” Nouman explained.

In Nouman’s opinion, students of CIE are at a disadvantage in such cases where there is one examination system, and students are given grades accordingly. Whereas during the pandemic, in local boards and examination systems such as FSc, students were given very generous grades. “FSc students got percentages in 90s even though they had to suffer the whole year, but in the end their grades were good and that helped them get into good fields, while CIE students had to go through deduction in conversions as well,” she said with disappointment in her voice.

Nouman also emphasized that CIE should come up with a long-term solution as the most suitable course of action in the event of cancellation of examinations. “We expect the CIE to have clear guidelines in case of any exam cancellation and course of action for grades. They should communicate their policies through their social media pages and make their partner schools communicate it to students and parents to lessen the misery. When something like this happens, we are clueless what's next and who will have clear and proper answers to our queries,” Nouman explained, adding that there should be a contingency plan for such events in future.

It is not a simple matter for any examination conducting body to cancel exams, but at time, the situation is unmanageable. The CIE had to take the undesirable step. With the recent cancellation of exams due to political unrest in the country, the CIE cancelled two papers that they initially announced would not be re-taken, but it is important to the CIE that students proceed with their education safely and without any disruption. “We will hold replacement exams for Cambridge International A Level Mathematics and A Level History on 21 June, allowing all affected A2 Level students whose exams were cancelled from 10-12 May, to obtain results in these two subjects. Cambridge students affected by the exam cancellations between 10-12 May will receive 'assessed marks.' These marks are calculated based on the papers students completed in the same exam series,” stated CIE Pakistan Country Director Uzma Yousuf. She added that they have communicated this decision and provided further information to Cambridge schools on May 19, 2023.

With the confusion among students about assessed marks based on performance, Yousuf said that the process of calculating assessed marks based on student's performance in the same exam series is a reliable and well-established process. “The process does not advantage or disadvantage students, and results are recognized and accepted by universities and employers worldwide.”

Rescheduling dilemma

Cancellation of exams is not merely difficult for students; it also creates problems of rescheduling and assessing students on their ability. “Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we have held exams worldwide, including in Pakistan, for the past three years. In June 2021, although some exams were delayed, we made provisions for replacement exams in June and November of the same year. The only exception was in June 2020 when strict Covid protocols prevented us from holding exams, and we offered schools worldwide the option of predicted grades,” the country director explained. At Cambridge, she says, they ensure equal and fair treatment for all students in every situation, and their results hold global recognition and acceptance from universities and employers. Students who have confusion can also visit the website to better understand the grade calculation mechanism.

Despair from which the CIE students go through is no different or worse than what the local examination system students go through, be it the matriculation or the intermediate board. One such story of suffering is that of the 16-year-old Rameen Imran and her mother Nida Imran. This is Rameen’s third year for boards, and she has faced nothing but problems. “When it was her class ninth exam two years ago, on the eleventh hour it was announced that there would be an examination but of the condensed syllabus. Although the whole academic year was already shifted to online classes due to covid, no clear instructions were conveyed by the boards at that time,” Nida says. Despite a last-minute announcement, no SOPs and details about the exam schedule and syllabus were shared. It was the year after the exams were cancelled, and her daughter was appearing for her boards for the first time.

Their suffering didn’t end there. Examination centres were not equipped to cater to students’ needs—no lights and fan, no mobile network to contact their families after the exam was over. “Due to covid and strict SOPs, students were supposed to wear masks all the time, and in the month of June with no light and fan, many students fainted due to suffocation and dehydration during the exam,” Rameen’s mother shared with me. The mother of three also remembers that there were some countrywide protests during her daughter’s last year exams. Accompanied by her husband, she was standing outside the centre to pick up their daughter, worried if they could safely reach home—Imran Khan was holding a sit-in in Islamabad and Faizabad was also blocked. Rumours were rife that Karachi would also be shutting down. Petrol pumps were closed, and they didn’t have enough petrol to reach home.

“This year we have been in limbo for the last two months. Intermediate exams happen annually, but about two weeks ago, it was announced that this year, second-year exams and then first-year exams would be held,” Imran shared. Now the whole of July will be consumed in Rameen’s exams, and from August the new session will start. Next year the second-year exams will be conducted in May, while students will only have eight months to prepare for a year’s course. The exam schedule is problematic for the entire family. Her two young sons have summer holidays, but as a family they cannot plan any vacation or out-of-city trip because her daughter's exams have been delayed by a month.

Since the last four years, the situation during or around exams is difficult for many students, but the most affected ones are those who are in their second year. In 2020, when the cancellation happened it was their first time for board exams. In 2021, they had to appear for exams on a short notice with condensed syllabus, which was not properly conveyed and only had optional subject papers. In 2022, due to political unrest some exams were disrupted, and many students faced problems in reaching their exam centres. In 2023, the Karachi board didn’t cancel exams but due to the law-and-order situation many students faced difficulties in reaching the exam centres.

Cancellation of exams is a relief for some but for the majority, it is a process that builds pressure and affects their performance. “The tempo breaks if any paper is cancelled; a student may have planned for two months the ways to study, revise and practice, but all of that gets messed up when a paper is cancelled,” shared Kashaf Shakeel who is about to appear in her class twelve exams. She also told me that cancellation a day before the exam changes nothing but only increases frustration because one has already studied the whole year, or at least a month before the exam. This can only benefit the ones who just do not want to study, but students who are working really hard to get into good fields and universities suffer the most.

The young pre-medical student said that the country’s education system is not just in shambles but is also making the young lot hate it because of the constant worry of exams—whether they will be held on time or not. People in charge of the system just issue a letter.