Examination posers | Sunday Observer

Examination posers

“Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.” This quote by English writer Charles Caleb Colton describes the anomaly of examinations very well. Sri Lanka is a country where both parents and children go to extreme lengths over examinations. The three main examinations in school life – the Scholarship examination, the GCE Ordinary Level examination and the GCE A/L examination have become highly competitive, with parents urging their offspring ‘cram’ the subjects at hand and somehow pass them.

Success at the examinations is often equated with success in education, though the two should be quite distinct from each other. There are many bright students who may not be so successful at examinations, but who may have other skills useful to society.

Those who ‘fail’ to win this rat race often left in the lurch. Sometimes even passing the examinations will not suffice – only around 30,000 of the 150,000 students who qualify to enter the universities can actually do so, as room is limited in our universities.

But this does not mean that examinations do not serve a purpose. They help filter the students who might show future potential. But applying for any examination has also become a major headache in itself, as it is a rather complicated manual process. But things are about to change for the better. The Department of Examinations has now decided to use an online application method from this year onwards for examinations such as the Ordinary Level, Advanced Level and the Grade Five Scholarship Examination.

Through this, it would be possible to provide a more efficient and easier service to the students. The Department says that every student will be issued with a Student Number from the Grade Five Scholarship Examination onwards.

Accordingly the students will be able to obtain information about their exam results as well as extra-curricular activities using this number.

This is indeed welcome news for all students and teachers who value time and convenience.

The only concern that some parents, teachers and children may have about this proposal is the question over the availability of Internet facilities in some rural areas. True, everyone has two smartphone handsets, but filling a form on the phone is no easy task. And not all students have access to a laptop or a desktop at home.

This is why it is essential to have more computer laboratories in rural schools and also more ‘Nenasala’ Information Technology Centres islandwide to facilitate requirements of this nature. Then it should be an easy matter for the students to fill the forms online.

This brings us to the question as to why entire examinations cannot be delivered via the Internet. Granted, this is a logistical challenge that is also expensive. But sooner or later, we will have to move over to Computer Based Testing (CBT) as opposed to Paper-Based Testing (PBT). Anyone who has taken an overseas examination such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) knows about the efficiency and convenience of CBT.

CBT is secure since the papers are delivered in real time via the Internet. This avoids issues such as the ‘leakage’ of physical examination papers, which is more common than we think.

CBT also allows for adjustments ‘on the fly’, which is impossible with PBT.

The authorities can also consider a ‘hybrid’ system where CBT and PBT are combined – CBT is ideal for Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), which also allows the students to play around with the answers without using a manual eraser.

But PBT could be better for written essay type questions, at least until all students get access to computers and learn to type on a keyboard in the vernacular languages (Sinhala and Tamil). However, it is much easier to learn to type in English and students who sit any examination in the English medium may find it easier to type away on a keyboard.

It is also time to reconsider some of the archaic examination rules such as not allowing calculators at exam centres. Many other countries allow students to use calculators for certain subjects.

This cannot be considered cheating because the student still has to use his or her knowledge to do the calculation, albeit on an instrument and not manually on a piece of paper.

It also saves time for students to concentrate on more difficult questions or questions that need long, detailed answers.

However, these should strictly be purpose-built normal or scientific calculators that cannot be connected to the Internet. Thus calculator apps found in smartphones should be a strict no-no.

In fact, the authorities should always be one-step ahead of would-be cheaters, who are turning to ever more sophisticated methods from Bluetooth headsets to smartwatches to get their answers from someone else.

Apart from outright impersonation, which is very rare, these high-tech methods are the next preferred methods. Some countries such as China even use drones that fly over the students’ heads as they do the examinations to detect any signs of cheating.

We may not have the financial means necessary to do such detections, but our supervisors and invigilators must strive to catch the cheaters in their act.

It is also vital to instill in children’s minds that examinations are just one part of their education.

The total aim of education is to produce good citizens who will be useful to society in the future, regardless of whether they excel at the examinations or not. This is also why it is essential to have clear future paths for those who do not fare well at major examinations.

The concept of a student number for all 4.5 million school students (this is already practised in the university system) is also a long-felt need. This could be a one-stop ‘Open Sesame’ for a variety of requirements from examination results to the issue of certificates.

It should ideally be tied to the Student Insurance Scheme as well, if possible with information such as Blood Group, any known illnesses, allergies and previous injuries. This could be crucial in the event of an accident or injury at school or en route.

Moreover, private or public institutions could also make use of this number for their business purposes – for example, a student can give the Student Number to open an account at a bank. This number may even be retained by the university system and of course, used as an index number for all examinations.

In the meantime, the Government should invite views and proposals from educationists, psychologists and the public about the current examinations system and whether any changes are needed.

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