By the letter

  • By itself, the adoption of letter grades on the SLC will not help; outdated methods of teaching and assessment must also change
- SURESH MANDAL, Kathmandu
By the letter

Jan 22, 2015-

The Ministry of Education (MoE) recently decided to conduct the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examination under a ‘letter grading system’, which is currently being discussed within the education sector. People have been arguing equally for both sides even as the ministry’s related wings—the Department of Education, the Curriculum Development Centre, and the Examination Board—are working rapidly towards implementing this initiative. They have set a target of conducting examinations under the letter grade system in almost 80 technical schools this year and plan to do so for the rest in the coming year.

Adopting letters

Letter grades are in place in many developed countries, like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, in the South Asian region. The MoE has decided to use letter grade for the SLC exam in a fashion similar to Ireland’s education system. The grades are as follows: 90-100 marks is A+ (excellent); 80-89 A (very good); 60-79 B (good); 40-59 C (satisfactory); 25-39 D (poor); and 0-24 E (very poor). The greatest weakness of this letter grade system is psychological—a negative mindset might arise there is no need to study to pass the exams.

However, the primary problem with the Nepali education system is that we are quick to adopt policies without conducting thorough research and analysis. We lack preparation. Students are not yet mentally ready for the new concept. We should first practice this system in preceding classes, check for compatibility, and only then implement it for the SLC examination. Also, our policymakers are not visionary. They implement policies for their own personal benefits. Many-a-time, they work under pressure from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, among others. They lack independent decision-making.

Five years ago, the education ministry decided to phase out the Proficiency Certificate Level (PCL) under the School Sector Reform Programme (SSRP). But no adequate infrastructure for students who want to study science in remote areas has been put in place as an alternative. Science labs have not been constructed and teachers have not been appointed. Therefore, classes have yet to commence. On the other hand, thousands of science teachers, who had been teaching the PCL, are getting salaries without working.

So the most important aspect of any new policy is its implementation. The letter grades are a good concept but their execution can be terrible. Adopting a new policy is not always the answer; it only distorts the established system. It also fails to answer many other questions: Why only for the SLC level? Why not in the lower and upper levels? Why does a student who scores 32 marks pass and one who scores 31 fail?

Letter strengths

However, there are positive aspects to the adoption of the letter grade. First, this might go some ways towards relieving the pressure that SLC candidates feel while sitting for the ‘Iron Gate’. Their attitude towards the SLC might become more relaxed and rational. Second, the one-mark system that determines whether a student passes (32) or fails (31) is removed. This system isn’t logical or scientific. One mark cannot make such a large difference in a student’s ability. The new system will also go some ways towards decrease the unhealthy competition among schools. Schools spend millions of rupees to achieve a 100 percent pass ratio so that they can advertise their schools as having 100 percent success.

Furthermore, last year, only 41 percent of students passed the SLC examination. The letter grade will work as damage control. This system will give validity to the assessment system of the SLC. Sometimes, we have 78 percent results in SLC and sometimes only 16. This raises question on the exam’s validity as well as our entire evaluation system.

But the biggest strength of the letter grade is that nobody will be stamped a failure. SLC candidates are often not mature enough to decide exactly what is wrong and right. Once they fail, they come to the conclusion that they are failures. One can be weak in Mathematics but might perform better in English. The current system undoubtedly hampers progress. There is no need to be good in all subjects to live a good life and have a productive career. Our existing SLC exam system attempts to produce all-rounder students who are not specialised in any specific subject. But it has largely failed even on this account

Democratic practices

We need to recognise that adopting a new concept at the policy-making level is not enough. There are several other areas that need attention, such as a new scientific curriculum, capable teachers, a healthy environment, and updated teaching approaches to homework, assessment, creativity and extra-curricular activities.

In as democratic society, decisions take place only through discussions among stakeholders. There has been no discussion yet with students, teachers, parents, or educationists. To impose such a system from above is autocratic. The letter grade is a new concept and it might be good for us but there is hesitancy in accepting it because we haven’t discussed it sufficiently. This has been a major weakness of the MoE.

Assessment needs to start with weakness. The world is adopting a ‘no-paper’ education system while we are adopting a ‘no-fail’ education system. From the perspective of child psychology, letter grades are a good concept. Also, from the perspective of employment and competition with the world, we should adopt this system, but not before necessary preparations are made. An A+ might not be achievable if we continue to use old learning, teaching, testing, and evaluating methods. There need to be changes in every aspect of education.

We should follow standardised testing and grades should be defined first on the certificates, so that employers and institutions give them importance. Diversity, interest, attitude, and creativity should be greatly promoted. A full year of investment cannot be tested and judged within three hours. So, other methods of assessment need to be adopted. For example: class assessment tests can be good evaluating methods. The last and most important thing is public awareness. A negative attitude prevails among both students and parents regarding the letter grade system. Unless these vital stakeholders have faith in the new system, letter grades will not make any difference.

Mandal is a student leader and central committee member of the Tarai-Madhes Democratic Party

Published: 23-01-2015 09:22

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