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

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