Nat’l exam, a poor mark of learning

Syamsir Alam ,  ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 04/05/2008 12:40 AM  |  Opinion

The National Examination, the ujian nasional, for primary, junior and high school students will be rolled out in the weeks to come. This controversial assessment policy has received substantial criticism as it has been imposed on students before the government can provide equal access to quality education for everyone.

This exam cannot fully satisfy its own purpose — to monitor student learning and to enhance quality education — due to its framework, which is not aligned with classroom instruction and curriculums used in schools.

Ujian nasional (UN), which cost US$28 million to set up, measures students’ academic levels in its exams. This information is expected to help the National Education Ministry identify schools that are high performers, low performers or under-performers, based on the ministry’s minimum standards.

Since UN assessment scores are being used to graduate or fail students, it has provoked strong criticism among parents, concerned citizens and education stakeholders in the country.

The ministry has been accused of undermining the basic rights of teachers and schools. Teachers know their students best, and therefore should have discretion to certify them. We need an excellent education — but quality should not only be determined by the UN, a one-off set of exams. It is unfair students’ three years of learning in school be judged in less than 10 hours in exam seats.

To exclusively use the scores of this assessment test for passing or failing students raises questions of its validity and fairness. Furthermore, since the UN uses multiple-choice questions, it has already discouraged teachers from creating other challenging tasks as mandated by the curriculum. As a result, schools are changing their assessments to adhere to government policy.

The public agrees that the goals of national assessments are commendable: to provide the same educational opportunities for all students, and for all students to reach the same level of achievement. Educators agree with the need for highly qualified teachers in schools, and the need to help economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities stop lagging behind.

We are not saying we should not have accountability. But the chance to design assessments that encourage complex cognitive thinking is slipping through our fingers with the UN.

We need to design assessments that are cognitively challenging if we want competitive and able students graduating.

The introduction of the UN to improve teaching, learning and achievement is an opportunity to re-evaluate whether the assessments we have used thus far encourage the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century.

The exclusive use of UN scores to pass or fail students is problematic. When we validate tests, we are really validating our interpretations and our use of those scores with particular populations of examinees.

For example, if you create a reading test for a graduating examination, you want to know if you can interpret scores as a measure of reading comprehension.

One of the main purposes of an examination is to certify that the candidates have learned the reading comprehension skills that the curriculum wants them to learn. A lot of evidence needs to be gathered to confirm this.

To singly use the UN to test students would be a great disservice to education.

The writer is a founder of The Learning Institute. He can be reached at samsir_abdullatif*

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