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.

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