Grade expectations

  • Letter grades for the SLC seem to have been adopted without the requisite homework
- Shanta Dixit
Grade expectations

Dec 30, 2014-

Improved quality in school instruction is the only way for Nepal to overcome its myriad challenges, from menial jobs abroad to youth fighting other people’s wars, while productive hillsides are left barren. The challenge of building schools is overcome, but poor schooling still saps the energy of our young, and of the nation as a whole. Quality in school education is the most important national agenda, particularly focussing on government schools where 80 percent attend.

Perhaps with an attempt to introduce quality, the government has just announced its intention to scrap the 80-plus-year-old system of pass-fail in the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations. The students will now receive a subject specific ‘A’ through ‘E’ letter grade and will not have to pass all eight papers in the SLC.

A watershed decision

There is indeed relief that the self-esteem of over a hundred thousand Nepali youth will not be crushed every year, with the majority declared to have ‘failed’ (71 percent of students attending government schools failed in the last SLC exams). An advantage of the current decision is that there will be fewer disappointments, including in extreme cases, suicides, related to the stigma of being ‘SLC-fail’.

The advantage of a letter grading system when applied with due diligence is that individual subject certification allows institutions of higher learning, skill providers, and employers to evaluate the aptitude and strength of school graduates in different subjects, and be able to make a match.

A closer look at the government’s decision sadly shows that it might have arrived without preparation. For a watershed decision such as this, with such potential to bring quality and energy to the school education sector, policymakers in education seem to have done little homework. This is made clear by the fact that this decision was sprung on the education community with little consultation with stakeholders, including those in the school system or independent researchers who have a vantage on the challenges facing Nepal’s school education.

Between the letters

What seems to have been done is simply to convert the numbers to letter grades (over 90 =A+, 80-89=A, 60-79=B, 40-59=C, 25-39=D, and less than 25=E). The graduating students are now placed in five categories instead of spread across 1 to 100 marks, with 32 for pass. There is no F or failing grade.

That may sound good, but all the stakeholders including employers can easily see that ‘E’ is in fact ‘F’ or worse. The official announcement came with the information that ‘A’ to ‘E’ would be divided between Excellent, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory, Weak and Very Weak (ati-uttam, uttam, ramro, thik, kamjor, ati-kamjor).

Bright students will still be upset if they do not get all As, and the students who receive an E or even a D in their strong subjects will feel bad to be labelled ‘very weak’ or ‘weak’. In practical terms and in life, there will be very little different between ‘SLC fail’ and those who are ‘kamjor’ and ‘ati kamjor’. The market, including colleges as well as employers, will quickly re-adjust their sights and will all have their own internal evaluations.

It seems that the changes suggested in the SLC grading system was the result of a simple computing exercise, in which number grades are replaced by letters. What we would have liked to see is the education bureaucrats who took this decision to have accompanied this effort with a campaign to upgrade teachers.

The way to make the system successful would be to follow the true meaning of ‘letter grading’, where the different letters signify differentiated levels of thinking, rather than gathering marks from a collection of recall questions. In a letter grading system, less than half the marks go for recall questions, the rest towards assessing student’s abilities to make comparisons, identify differences, analyse situations, synthesise, study trends, make predictions, and think critically, thus getting the skills required to negotiate the ever-changing world.

A national tendency

The new system requires teachers to be trained to facilitate higher order thinking among children. Unfortunately, this move to a new examination grading system has not come in tandem with new programmes to prepare school children to flower through experiential and meaningful learning.

Attempts to improve Nepal’s education are replete with examples of well-meaning but ad hoc decisions. The best example would be the introduction of the ‘semester system’ in the late 1970s as a way to ‘Americanise’ college education. This required the teachers to be engaged with the student’s work with continuous internal assessments. This proved impossible because of myriad reasons, including the training and motivation level of teachers, biased behaviour and favouritism, and the impossibly large class sizes.

Another populist decision was to include only the Grade X course content, containing only 40 percent of the course for the SLC (60 percent was taught in Grade IX). For a few years, the SLC results seemed better. Now it is worse than before.

In recent years, changes in the school system have been decreed by donor agencies with the best of intentions and highest of ideals, but not necessarily with the necessary homework. The government has been the weak partner, given that it relies on donors to support the humongous budget of the Ministry of Education. Idealistic initiatives are introduced without the necessary follow-up or support required. In the present instance, whether the grading system was thought of internally or introduced thorough external factors, it is clear that the teachers or students have not been considered at the centre of any effort to improve the quality of education.

If there is fault to be placed, of course, it should rest with our education bureaucracy and the politicians who know how things are in the education sector, and whose responsibility it is to ensure that change is not for the sake of change, but for improving teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Cosmetic populism?

The introduction of the letter grading system seems to have been done with the dash of a pen and little extra effort—no effort to provide quality subject-specific teachers in middle schools, no effort to train the teachers to guide students towards their strong subjects in order to improve their marketability, no effort on developing the curriculum so that it caters to all kinds of learners. A major decision has been made without the National Centre for Education Development or the Curriculum Development Centre or any other department critical for education planning and implementation having to make any change on the way they conduct business. No changes for schools, no changes for school leaders, no changes for teachers or students, except for the number crunchers at the office of the Controller of Examination.

Will this decision improve the quality of education for Nepali children? Will students emerge as skilled according to their individual strengths and interests, leading them to have productive careers and better lives? Or is this just a cosmetic populist decision that is meant to be seen as helping the youth, but bringing them no benefit?

The present decision, to be honest, should have read: Writing the SLC exams is now considered as passing. Students can retake exams, any number times, in their subject of choice, in order to improve their grades.

Dixit is founder and director of Rato Bangala School

Published: 31-12-2014 09:07

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