Education reformation needed to rescue our future

Michael Setiawan ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 05/02/2009 10:40 PM  |  Opinion

The celebration of National Education Day, which falls on May 2, needs to be marked with some introspection. This country, its officials and its people need to realize how education will make this country move forward and become a great country in the future. Our education is left out from other countries, including our neighbors, which used to get our help to improve their education, and it also creates a lot of controversies among us.

We have to admit that we are moving around the “axis of evil” in terms of education. Whatever happens between the government and lawmakers regarding the educational budget, we will never be able to move forward unless we break this axis and achieve some real education reform. The “axis of evil” in education refers to the frequent changing of the curriculum, the doubtful welfare standard of teachers and the changing culture among those involved in education, from students to parents to teachers.

We have to find the curriculum that best fits our country. This country tends to imitate curriculums from other countries in the hope they will be transition flawlessly. It is surprising to discover officials still insist on using these unsuitable curriculums. In addition, almost every time we have a new minister of education, we have another curriculum and other new set of rules that create problems. If we want to be honest, our present curriculum is not working well and it needs revision. For some people, past curriculums have been much better than the current.

On the other hand, we also need to start thinking about our teachers. Their welfare is the determining factor of their teaching quality. The minimum salary of Rp 2.5 million per month, is unrealistic in these tough economic conditions.

Prof. Dr. Laura F.N. Sudarnoto, an expert in education and also dean of the School of Education at Atma Jaya University, recently reminded us in one of her speeches that education reform is needed in all aspects, such as a change of curriculum, adequate infrastructure.

In addition, we have to be aware of the changing culture among our students, parents, and also teachers. Our students see education as a burden in their lives. They do not enjoy what they learn. They come to school because they have to. Their studies are perfunctory.

Besides, finding teachers who have the idealism to train future leaders is a difficult task. Parents usually do not care about education and its processes. They only want to see the results, not the process.

In order to have real education reform, we need to find the most suitable curriculum. These processes take time.

In addition, we need to dramatically increase the welfare of our teachers, it will result in full dedication to their students. To escape the “axis of evil” in education, we have to shift the mind-set of our students, teachers and parents. Good education will be the result of the co-operation by these parties.

If these ideas are not actualized, the future of education in the country will worsen and be disastrous for the next generation. It is time for us to commemorate this month of education by taking real actions.

The writer is a lecturer in the School of Education, English Department, Atma Jaya University, Jakarta.

National exam: Searching for fairness, justice

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 07/05/2008 12:21 PM  |  Opinion

In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, an American political philosopher, says that one of the principles of fairness is that institutions or practices must be just. Rawls’ statement is an entirely appropriate reminder for us to reflect upon an annual tradition in our education sphere — the national examinations (UAN) for both junior and senior high schools.

It has been reported that 7 percent of students who took this year’s exams failed, up from 4.71 percent in 2007. There is thus a drop in the number of graduates this year.

Despite the drop, the Board of Middle and Higher Education (Dikmenti) claimed that students’ learning achievements in Jakarta are much better that those from other provinces, and that students from Jakarta still excelled compared to their counterparts from other regions.

With regards to this sweeping generalization, one may react by posing some critical inquiries. Can the national exams be used as a valid standard measurement nationwide? Were the exams constructed and developed by catering to test-takers’ diverse backgrounds in terms of political ideology, race/ethnicity, gender, native language and socioeconomic status? Who constructed or developed the exams? Are they representative of test developers from different parts of the regions? Does the content of the exams accord with the learners’ learning principles and beliefs and accurately measure what the learners know? The answers are, in my view, less than likely to be “yes”.

In addition to subtle individual learning differences, multiethnicity and multiculturalism have been characteristics of our society. It stands to reason then that a centralized exam intended for the consumption of the population in all provinces here cannot serve as a standard measure for claiming that one region has achieved more gains than others.

Even in the same region, a centralized constructed test cannot be used as a valid standard of measurement. Students coming from varied schools undergo different experiences due to different schools’ teaching and learning philosophy, the quality of the teaching staff, the teaching resources available and teaching materials, to mention just a few things. These varied experiences that students bring to the test room undoubtedly affect their performance on the test, both negatively and positively.

Clearly test takers from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds may be disadvantaged and advantaged in taking the national exam.

The public outcry to annul the exam is certainly understandable. In fact, the uproar against the practice of the exam nationwide takes place every year, with those in authority turning a deaf ear and insisting that the exam be maintained as an instrument for evaluating the nation’s learning achievement.

The annually unabated spat over the national exam that always colors our education sphere, in my view, stems primarily from the fact that there is no synergy between the ministry of education and test stakeholders — test-takers, teachers, parents and society at large.

The lack of this synergy helps create what many testing specialists call the abuse of test by the elite and those in power, often marginalizing test-takers and other indirectly related stakeholders.

As the construction and development of the national exam is part of the manifestation of the education policy set by the authoritative body, many testing specialists see a test as a powerful device through which control is exercised authoritatively. This in turn is used as a mechanism of legitimizing the power of bureaucrats and related groups.

Thus, if those in power are still in control of the academic systems, the execution of the national exam is susceptible to abuse, resulting in a test that is not fair, just, ethical and democratic.

The application of a centralized test for all students in the provinces is an instance of test abuse because it doesn’t hold the principle of societal equity, a basic condition of fairness.

To safeguard the practice of the national exam (if the government insists it be maintained) from any kind of test abuse in the years to come, the formulation of a code of practice by an independent monitoring body of the national examination, as a professional association, involving testing specialists and related stakeholders is imperative.

For one thing, the national exam falls into the category of high-stake test — a test that has a major impact on a large numbers of students. This kind of test is used to make important decisions such as the admission to academic institutions and the awarding of scholarships.

For another, because the results obtained from the national exam have broader societal implications, the way it is constructed, developed, administered and scored should conform to the principles of societal equity. A test, no matter valid and reliable, is of no meaningful value unless it is ethical, democratic and fair.

The price of such efforts is high. More professional people, more financial resources and more time and energy are called for. Yet, if the high-stake national exam is deemed central in determining the fate of students hailing from various regions nationwide, the price is worth paying.

The writer is chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id

Examining national exam

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 05/02/2009 10:40 PM  |  Opinion

The apparent paradox of the annually-held national exam is that students’ learning efforts are never assessed in terms of the mandated national curriculum popularly known as Kurrikulum Tingkat Satuan Pendidikan (KTSP). There are some possible causes for this.

To start with, the contradiction is indicative of the sheer ignorance of our government in findings ways of linking what is prescribed in the philosophy underlying the KTSP with the ways students’ learning performances are assessed. From the perspective of the assessment, such ignorance has damaging consequences; it will bring about a harmful backwash effect – the effects of a test or assessment on teaching and learning.

This deleterious backwash effect will in turn give rise to the mistrust of a test by students and teachers. Further, as the national exam falls into the category of a high-stakes test – a test that has a tremendous impact on students’ life in the future – the role of other stakeholders (parents and society at large), apart from the students themselves, should not be undermined. Poor quality of a test will directly and indirectly impinge upon their perceptions of the test.

Lyle Bachman, a world’s noted language testing specialist, declares that no tests take place in a value-free system and the test should therefore have equitability, meaningfulness, impartiality, generalizability, relevance, and sufficiency.

If one peruses the contents of the KTSP, it is crystal-clear that the curriculum highlights the importance of acquiring the so-called pendidikan kecakapan hidup (life skills education), which encompasses personal, social, academic, and vocational skills.

Here we see a most contradictive nature of the national exam with the KTSP. By a standard logic, it would be na*ve to say that these life skills can be measured via the centralistic national exam, which lasted only a few days and which relies notoriously on a single assessment technique, i.e. the multiple choice items.

Despite its merit in terms of practicality and economy in scoring, such an assessment technique is highly incompatible with and has no relevance to the attainment of the life skills mentioned above. While it is possible to assess students’ academic skills using a multiple-choice technique, personal, social, and vocational skills can never be assessed using an artificial test format that provides students with a choice of alternatives.

In fact, the national exam has swung too far away from the mandated curriculum and therefore poses a validity threat. This is to say that the validity of such an exam is seriously called into question. As such, any attempts to harbor mistrust against the exam are understandable because the National Education Ministry, which is supposed to be held accountable for the exam, has failed to convince all stakeholders involved that the intended use of the exam nationwide is justified.

Probably, the most serious fallacy of the exam has been the denial of students’ psychological and geographical aspects. It would be unfair to use the results of the exam as the sole basis of inference for their future admission to higher learning institutions, given that the students are working under the pressure of time. Also, it would be too premature to draw a generalized conclusion that the national exam applies to all students hailing from heterogeneous geographical areas and even to those in the same areas in the country.

It is indeed an irony that all the schools nationwide must participate in the national exam, whereas the KTSP grants a full autonomy for teachers to conduct their own techniques of assessment.

Assessment, as defined in the KTSP, is a series of activities in order to obtain, analyze, and interpret data on students’ learning processes and learning results, which are done in a systematic and sustainable manner so as to become meaningful information in decision-making.

It is important to highlight here that this definition acknowledges assessment as an on-going process, which as further delineated in the KTSP, requires such techniques as observation, project work, performance assessment, portfolio and self-assessment.

With the life-skills education becoming the virtual goal as mandated by the KTSP, they can be the best candidate for alternatives in assessment for the future. They are simply too good not to be considered.

One can argue that they may demand professionalism on the part of the teachers in order to apply them effectively. They may also take considerable cost, time, effort, and training to obtain optimal results. Yet, when an exam has high stakes, and when backwash is considered vital, the investment of such cost, time, effort and training is worth doing.

The writer is chief-editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He teaches language assessment and English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.