Choice of exam system By Faisal Bari
THE usual demands regarding school curricula and the examination system are that they should provide the needed subject knowledge and understanding to students, foster curiosity and creativity in children, make available tools for critical thinking and take students away from rote learning, impart values to students, and make way for the latter to become independent and well-rounded learners and individuals. Details of what goes into all of these areas is and has been a matter of much debate over time, and will continue to be so as education and the need for it evolve with time.
Schoolgoing children in Pakistan have access to three different curricula and examination systems: matriculation/intermediate, O- and A-levels, and, increasingly, though still on a small scale, the International Baccalaureate (IB) system.
Matriculation/intermediate, the local system, is by far the largest and the cheapest option. Almost all government schools and most low- to middle-fee private schools prepare students for these examinations. Exams are organised under local boards of intermediate and secondary education, (which also includes the Aga Khan board) but there is some level of coordination amongst the boards across the country so that there is a relatively high degree of comparability across examinations. Even so, some boards, like the Federal Board, have a slightly better reputation than some others.
Most people would agree that the perception and reality of matriculation/intermediate examination is that it is largely a rote-based system. Though there have been attempts at reform, the examination still does not test understanding or encourage wider reading, including critical reading. It does not prepare students to be independent learners. The curriculum is large and heavy but, and many people have written about it, it is not taught well and it is poorly assessed. There is too high a dependence on summative assessments.
We have to decide which curriculum or examination system is the most appropriate and feasible.
But the main point going for the matriculation/intermediate examination is that it is local, endorsed and managed by the government and relatively low-priced, meaning that the examination cost is not a significant barrier to grade completion for most candidates.
The O-/A-level system is UK-based. It is perceived to be of a much higher quality, in terms of curriculum as well as assessments. The curriculum does encourage wider coverage, and examinations, by and large, do test understanding and not just rote learning. There is some focus on the development of critical thinking as well as of writing ability. However, over the last few decades, Pakistani teachers and schools have ‘cracked’ the code for taking O-/A-level examinations and some shortcuts have been developed: there is heavy reliance on secondary sources, teachers’ notes and preparing past examination questions. But still, it is considered to be a much better curriculum/examination system than the matriculation one.
However, it is far more expensive. It is not only the examination fee that is a lot higher, the cost of providing good preparation for O-/A-level examinations too is much higher. Which is why it is mostly the higher-fee schools that are able to offer the O-/A-level option. Controlling for income and other self-selection effects, the difference in curricula/examinations might be more limited, but there is considerable difference in how the two systems are perceived by most parents and higher education institutions in Pakistan. That perceptual difference alone is reason enough for parental preferences for O-/A-levels, if finances allow. This explains why, over the last few decades, this option has become more accessible across Pakistan.
The new kid in town, in Pakistan at least, is the IB system. It quite explicitly tries to develop a broader understanding across subjects and areas. It tries also to address global concerns to create a more ‘global’ citizen. It focuses on the development of critical thinking, independent learning and the development of interpersonal skills through project-/activity-based learning in teams. The assessments are a mix of formative and summative ones. Research literature does find some evidence that the IB system delivers on a number of these promises.
The IB system, with its emphasis on activity and collaboration, does demand much more from teachers as well as students. It requires more time and effort from both. It also demands more at the level of school infrastructure: a better library, computing facilities, more inter-departmental cooperation and coordination. IB requires a period of training for teachers before the system can be introduced in school. All this raises the cost of provision significantly. It is not a surprise then that so far IB is only available in 15-odd schools across Pakistan and all of these schools have very high tuition fee.
There are issues for parents/students to think about at the individual level and for all of us to think about at the collective level as well. Quality education has a cost. Someone has to bear that cost: it will be either the parents/students or society. As parents and students, we have to decide which curriculum or examination system is the most appropriate and feasible. Education is an investment in the future and it has significant intergenerational impacts. What is it that we want to ensure for our children?
As a society, too, we need to take up the same issue. Education has large externalities and a very strong public good element to it. We want every child to have access to quality education. But what should be the minimum acceptable quality and how should it be priced? Is matriculation good enough? And priced appropriately? Do we need to reform the matriculation/intermediate curriculum and examination system? Or should the state subsidise students to go for the O-/A-level or IB option? What is the appropriate or optimal public policy choice here? Does having three systems create too much inequality in outcomes? Should we allow this diversity to continue? If not, what would be the best way to reduce it?
The quality of education is tied to curriculum and examination issues. And we, as individuals and as a society, have choices to make here. And these choices will have consequences for us as well as the future of the country.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2022