Examining the examination

2014-04-05

Ekantipur

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The educational path of nearly every school student in Nepal converges at the age of sixteen. When tenth-graders across the nation congregate in examination centres in late March to demonstrate scholastic competency, they attempt to cross the “iron gate” of Nepali education-a virtual rite of passage that shuts off the world of academia for those it does not deem worthy. In the 77 years since the induction of the School Leaving Certificate examination, or SLC, the divide it has established between those fit to continue their schooling and those who are not has come to be taken for granted. It should not. The present system contributes to a substandard workforce and will continue to have exacting consequences on the Nepali economy if a major provision is not made in the future.

Come June, many of those students will not be celebrating. This year, 45.5 percent of candidates failed the exam, and even though a fraction of these students will decide to retake the exam during the next session in the hope of passing, many will not. The lone concession granted to test takers is an ‘exemption’ that allows students who have failed up to two exams to retake them in August. The pervasive notion that only students devoid of talent or overly lax with their work will perform badly on the SLC has molded this rigid structure. While this view is inherently false-the disparity between results in and outside the Kathmandu valley confirms that other factors such as poor teaching must be at play-it does not justify the lack of a leeway for students that have failed to continue their schooling. Since 1934, the SLC has separated a student’s path into two alternatives: either further education and an appropriate career, or the unskilled workforce. Today, however, the SLC is an anachronistic fragment of a different age. The demand for skilled employees has risen exponentially, yet the proportion of students who advance deeper into academe is stagnant. Around 80 percent of Nepal’s population is still actively engaged in agriculture, which makes up a third of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and a fifth employed in industry and services contributes the rest. Agriculture’s low earning potential highlights how desperately an expansion of the other two sectors is needed. At a time when professionals are more vital to Nepal than ever before, the SLC chokes the cultivation of individuals who could have been the backbone of a stronger economy.

The examination’s tendency to eliminate potential talent far too early in the game is alarming. The academic prowess of students at the age of 16 is not fully predictive of their long-term ability to contribute to the economy. Nonetheless, they are inhibited from ultimately joining the skilled work sector. Moreover, SLC results depend too much on the student’s socioeconomic background, highlighted by the discrepancy between results in wealthier and poorer regions. This masks aptitude and elevates the importance of social hierarchy. Also, although the provision to retake exams exists, the significant social stigma accompanying repetition discourages many students from pursuing further education.

As a solution, the complete elimination of a tenth-grade national exam has been suggested recently in the media. Such a radical step is unwarranted. A content-based reform is certainly attractive, but a discriminatory tactic to separate the outstanding and the good from the mediocre is vital. Just as underachievers should be granted more opportunity, exceptional students must be pushed further. While the SLC’s ability to keep candidates from different backgrounds on the same footing is open to debate, a national exam is preferable to allowing schools to follow individual curricula. Some claim that candidates who fail the exam did not prioritise education and are likely to discontinue schooling and enter the workforce instead. There is some merit in that argument, but it ignores a category of students whose aspirations were crushed by the test, and who were robbed of the chance to prove themselves. Not all who wish to be educated post-school aspire to emerge as high-flying intellectuals - most simply want better future work prospects. The aspirations of such students must be accommodated with an alternate qualification that allows them to proceed into higher education unhindered. 

The Technical SLC (T-SLC) is one such arrangement currently in place. Developed partially for students who fail the SLC and wish to continue their instruction, it is purportedly equal to said qualification.  However, it fails in one major aspect; such an assessment must be both technically and officially equal to the SLC, yet pupils prior to the tenth grade are oftentimes allowed to take the T-SLC. A recent article on The Kathmandu Post titled ‘Alternative Schooling’ mentions this trend. This categorically undermines the legitimacy of the qualification and sets a precedent for the TSLC to quickly diminish in the public eye in terms of  importance.

Besides this consideration, an ideal qualification ought be structured around the following criteria: it should 1) be publicised enough to solidify its stance as a rigorous assessment 2) only be available to those who have performed unsatisfactorily on the SLC 3) set an appropriate cutoff mark to approve candidates - its purpose is to provide opportunity to those willing to invest the effort, not to provide ‘free’ access to higher education 4) allow passage into a wide range of academic disciplines, not just ‘technical’ subjects 5) be more accessible to retakes. Additionally, the relative quality of the test should not be compromised, and only appropriate content and structural modifications must be implemented. Such a qualification would stand the test of time and adequately cater to the students that have failed the SLC. 

After nearly eight decades, it is time for the School Leaving Certificate to undergo a critical examination. This does not entail subjecting it to grandiose statements about its upheaval, but rather promoting a balanced debate concerning its improvement. Its ability to maintain relative equality in our socioeconomically fragmented society ought to be acknowledged and appreciated, and its shortcomings, comprehensively addressed. I believe the SLC’s uncompromising nature towards less-than-mediocre students is an oft-neglected foundational issue that must be examined with an eye on maximising Nepal’s long-term labour potential. While tending to appear trivial, this matter has far-reaching effects. Providing more opportunity to the disadvantaged by establishing an appropriate alternative is an extremely feasible solution. This change is long overdue, and the clock is ticking. Reform awaits.

(Bhattarai is an undergraduate student studying Government at Harvard University)

(Source: The Kathmandu Post)