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.