The exam’s new system: One step forward, two steps back

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, April 13 2013, 12:29 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

This year, more than three million senior high schools students and vocational schools are expected to participate in the annually-held national exam — popularly known as the National Examinations (UN) — that is slated to kick off on April 15.

Slightly different from the previous year, this year’s UN will be held under a new system. The question sheets have been designed in the form of 20 dissimilar packages, with each containing completely different versions of questions.

Each student then takes the same exam with a different version of questions. Through this new system, students are expected to focus on answering their own questions and more importantly cheating and other possible fraud committed during the exams can be prevented.

Unlike last year’s system, the new system is indeed one step forward because it is more likely to curb cheating, although no one can be sure that cheating will not recur.

It should be apparent here that what is new in this year’s UN system concerns technicalities, that it is an anticipation of possible students’ cheating, which caused an uproar last year.

Thus, this is a solution to the technical, if not trivial, problem, but does not address more substantial problems of the final exam often voiced by educational practitioners.

What both the past and current systems have always ignored is the extent to which the national exam, as a large-scale standardized test, yields positive pedagogical effects on students and teachers and the extent to which it is accountable in the eyes of the public at large.

Pedagogically, a test intended to measure students’ learning achievements must yield to beneficial effects on learning (technically called washback effects). This suggests that a test such as the exam must arouse and motivate students’ further learning to their own advantage.

It should allow students to monitor their own learning strategies, provide corrective feedback to these strategies, and aid retention and transfer of what has been learnt. In essence, the exam must allow students to conduct self-assessment.

Furthermore, the accountability factor should not be deliberately dismissed from the exam. This is especially true, given that this state-sponsored exam belongs in the category of a high-stake exam, the obtained scores of which have been used to make crucial pedagogical decisions.

Test accountability also entails fairness and the inclusion of a code of ethics, which includes, among other things, respect for humanity, prevention of the misuse of knowledge and skills, commitment to the integrity of the community and the mindfulness of obligations to society (Crusan, 2010). Thus, the results of the test have far-reaching implications, not limited to educational context only.

We have witnessed that whatever pedagogical paradigms (manifested in the curriculum) we have been adhering to in the national education system, the state-mandated UN always withstands the test of time.

Despite the strong, repeated resistance against it, it is highly likely to be used as the sole standardized test under the much-debated 2013 curriculum in years to come.

Assuming that it will be used, the fiercest criticism the final exam will face is related to how the unobservable qualities (constructs) highlighted in the basic competence in the new curriculum can be tested using a single instrument measurement (i.e. the UN).

Again, it seems that the feasibility or practicality of the national exam over its validity and reliability will still be the prime consideration for its continued use in the future.

A quality test (or assessment), however, should not always be in the form of a standardized large-scale test like that of the exam. Assessment experts and researchers concur that this kind of test often does more harm than good.

They propose instead a more situated, context-specific, and locally designed test. Contrary to a larger-scale test that is detached and often has no clear pedagogical benefits, locally developed tests are more test-taker-friendly as their design or construction often envisions the real contextual factors such as the instructional learning goals, teaching materials used and the cultural and social milieu of the institution where the students learn. This will surely help attain the intended, positive washback effects.

What is more, the accessibility to obtain information such as the contents of materials to be covered in the test, the format of the test, and the scoring criteria used are made easier and relatively transparent to test-takers and other stakeholders, hence its public accountability.

All of these features are clearly missing in a widely-used standardized large-scale test like the national exam.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He is also chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.

Exam and the death of the sound mind

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, April 13 2013, 12:32 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

In front of their friends and parents, the education specialist called the students one-by-one. Every student got a five or 10 minute healing procession. Acting like a hypnotist, or more precisely, like a traditional shaman, he began by asking each of them to repeat what he recited, which comprised Islamic sacred words arranged in a random order.

After making sure of each student’s mesmerization, he started to investigate (or make the students confess), asking questions about the mistakes they committed — mainly related to the preparations for the upcoming national exams — and making them pledge not to repeat the mistakes again and to better themselves in the future.

In a normal situation, when there is no pressure such as the obligation to pass the National Exams, I would not be sure that the students would willingly follow the above practice.

First, public interrogation in front of friends, parents and other spectators is actually an embarrassment. This would be even more keenly felt by teenagers, who often feel awkward among their friends or other people.

Second, while some or many of them seemed to accept the practice, we should be aware of behavioral deviation phenomena, such as masochism or a feeling of excitement when a person is physically or psychologically abused.

At the same time, recalling the fact that our children are mentally socially constructed to a certain extent, we must be more critical with the emerging “religious” practice at almost all schools called muhasabah, or retreat, which is intended to make them better prepared before the National Exams.

Listening to their answers of why they went on retreat, many of the students have said that they would be able to answer exam questions more easily because they were the hands of God.

Many think that it can be an instant way out of their laziness problem or learning disorders.

In fact, we know, positive knowledge of science, math, or languages can only be acquired through learning, reasoning and experiencing. The knowledge is not implanted because of the mercy of God because of their piety.

Many of the students, as well as their teachers, think that a long and often painful process of learning is not necessary; that relentless effort will eventually surrender to the iron fist of fortune. Or else, they are made believe that the process is less necessary than the end result. Consequently, dishonesty materializes in form of shortcuts such as cheating or teachers helping their students to pass the exams illegally.

To this point, while the concept of the National Exams is not wrong, the practices that have evolved before and after their implementation are.

On one hand, the process is intended to ensure a quality education for all Indonesian children. Yet on the other hand, the process lends itself to the assassination of logical and reasoning ability in students.

Back to the story of the education shaman. We have to mention that the National Exams are a blessing for him. He can enjoy more money than what is received by an ordinary teacher in a month.

He need only memorized a few sacred words, possess a rhetoric ability and build connections with school principals.

The shaman would never think that the parents have to pay more than their ordinary tuition fees because of the preparations for the National Exams — a fund-raising practice that has been prohibited.

It is simply because they think like real businessmen without sufficient empathy for the suffering of the others.

Talking to some teachers, I promised that I would never let my children experience the practice. I believe that once sound minds are interfered with by illogical or unreasonable activities, they might lose their passion to learn and experience normally.

Similarly, their consciences will be trimmed down gradually once they are accustomed to enjoying instant or effortless success.

Students who have been forced to do unreasonable things by the people who fear their own failures should have a forgiving heart. Forget the embarrassing public confession and do not let it linger your memory. Just believe in yourself and never compromise your integrity.

The writer is a school manager and a researcher at the Paramadina Foundation.