Examined life of Sri Lankan youth | Sunday Observer

Examined life of Sri Lankan youth

18 October, 2020

The following is an extract of the text from a news item in the evening newscast of one of the TV channels on Sunday, October 11, 2020. “The Grade five scholarship examinations were held today under strict health regulations. 331,694 candidates sat the exam in 2,936 centres across the island. All students in quarantine will have special facilities where their answer scripts would be collected separately. Five students receiving treatment at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (IDH hospital) sat the exam at the hospital premises, invigilated by an official of the Department of Examinations.

The Examinations Department stated that all centres for the scholarship and Advanced Level examinations have been disinfected and are, therefore, safe. Students and the staff members are all advised to wear face masks conforming to safety regulations.

The Ministry of Education stated that, it is the responsibility of everyone in society to ensure that the mental peace of these children sitting the examinations is not disturbed enabling them to perform without stress, during this pandemic situation.” Some videos of children lined up to wash hands and parents breaking all the safety regulations and crowding the entrance to the centres were shown with these statements.

This may sound soothing and comforting to the viewer at first glance but if one could think a bit deeper into these statements one would jump out of that comfort zone in no time. Irrespective of the strength and accuracy of the disinfectant procedures followed, assuring the safety of the people at exam centres is not humanly possible since this virus has been known to survive in the air long enough and enter the human body through even the eyes.

Mental peace

It is good if everyone in society takes the responsibility of ensuring the mental peace of the children sitting these examinations not just on the day of this exam but everyday of their lives. Most of these Grade five students have been attending tuition classes for at least one whole year in preparation for the exam.

Most of the students sitting the Advanced Level examination these days also have started their ‘memorisation for exams’ a marathon from Grade three, four or five. If any of them watched the news item about the scholarship exam, they would probably have gone down memory lane and reminisced their experiences. They might even have felt happy about their survival through the barrage of examinations they had to face over the eight years since their scholarship exam. On the contrary, even if any of the Grade five students saw the same news item they may not have had any idea about what was said about the Advanced Level exams starting the next day and/or how much of mental peace they are going to lose within the next eight years of their lives.

The fact that one has to face an examination / evaluation, as a student, an employee or as a patient at a hospital, itself usually creates a significant amount of mental stress even under the best of circumstances. One can only imagine the level of mental agony children would be going through when they have to face examinations on which their whole future, in some cases the future of their whole family depends while fearing an invisible enemy who might kill them or one of their family members. There can be different ways to look at the reasons for and the methods of evaluating the knowledge or the level of performance of an individual in the field of education and in the work environment. Whichever way one tries to analyse it, the following three questions would help form the basis for such analysis:

i) Why have we become a nation who has no shame in shackling our youth to these heavy weights of ‘high-stakes examinations’?

ii) Have we, as a nation, achieved what we expected from these examinations? iii) After sending our youth through all these examinations and filtering have we ended up with a group of adults who are highly knowledgeable and capable of serving the nation and the rest of the world with pure intentions? If the answer to this last question is ‘yes’ then, of course we should continue what we have been doing with even more examinations. But, if the answer is ‘no’ we should examine the answer to question ii.

If the answer to that is ‘yes’ it means we have achieved what we expected from this system of examinations yet our adults are not really knowledgeable and also not capable of serving the country with pure intentions. We would then have to seriously examine what our expectations have been for torturing our youth with such a stressful life filled with examinations. If the answer to question ii is ‘no’ we should certainly find out the reason for not achieving what we have expected through these exams. That means we should be prepared to change these examination methods and/or the expectations we have by conducting such a system.


Governments around the world had to make similar decisions about the examinations/evaluation methods of their schoolchildren and of their university students. Some countries cancelled all the exams altogether for the whole year, some postponed and held them when the threat of the virus went down and others postponed and have not rescheduled yet due to the second wave of the pandemic. Sri Lankans were on the right track with a gradual decrease of the infected numbers when these two main examinations were scheduled for October. Unfortunately, we let our guard down at some point letting the virus creep in again creating this situation with no other option but to conduct the exams before the end of the year.

If we didn’t have the scholarship exam those children cannot get into better schools that they have been dreaming of and not having the Advanced Level exam this year would delay the adult life of the students leaving school.

Therefore, this may be a good time to explore the answers to question i) and try to find ways to reduce the importance given to such examinations and also to introduce legitimate procedures of continuous assessment at every level so that the evaluation can be done even if an examination had to be cancelled.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]