Assaying the Iron Gate

  • A high SLC pass rate by itself is not sufficient evidence that private schools are providing relevant learning experiences to children
Assaying the Iron Gate

Mar 26, 2015-

Thousands of anxious tenth grade students are sitting for the SLC exam this week. In a few months, the nation will go through its annual ritual of bemoaning the low pass rate of government schools. A much-needed critique gets lost in this noise. Few seem to ask how accurately the SLC reflects the intellectual ability of students. Thus, we remain stuck with the notion that private schools are superior to government schools simply because of SLC performances.

Success in the 21st century demands more than knowing facts. Progressive education systems have understood this for some time. Even conservative societies such as Singapore, where a focus on standardised tests has been the norm, are now changing direction. Aggressive reforms have started since 2013, when a key official in Singapore publicly stated that “to deal with the demands of a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment, good grades in school are not enough. In fact they might not even be relevant”.

What does the SLC measure?

Our key intention today is to explore the claim that the SLC measures intellectual ability.

To assess the SLC, we used a simple tool familiar to any educator—Blooms Taxonomy. Created in 1956, this widely accepted tool divides cognitive abilities into six levels. At the lowest level is ‘Remembering’—taking something you learned and simply recalling it to answer a question. One level up is ‘Comprehension’—taking something you learned and showing you understood it, for example, by sharing a summary of a whole chapter in just one paragraph. At the highest cognitive levels, according to Blooms, are evaluation and creation.

To accurately assess the intellectual ability of students, the SLC would need to contain a healthy mix of questions from all six levels, but with more higher-order questions. An analysis of the science papers for all five development regions for the year 2065 BS (2008-2009) showed that this was not the case. None of the papers contained a single question at the two highest cognitive levels—evaluate and create. On average, 50.40 percent (or 37.8 marks out of 75) could be earned from questions at the lowest cognitive level, in other words, by recalling facts. Next, 26.93 percent (20.2 marks out of 75) could be earned from questions at the second-lowest level, through summarising.

This data makes one thing clear: the SLC is easy. Assuming 20 out of 25 in the practicals, it is possible to get a first division by just remembering facts. The ‘iron gate’ happens to be rusty and brittle on the inside. That the SLC has come to be seen as a hard test only serves to highlight how dysfunctional our public education system is. The abysmal performance of a majority of government schools creates the impression that the SLC is rigorous. Consequently, private schools are lauded for delivering ‘good results’ on it. In reality, private schools deserve no praise even if 50 percent of their students get first divisions; they have taught their students to do no more than remember.

For the level of investment parents make in private schools, students should be getting a lot more. They should be getting teachers who are passionate about their subjects and can inspire students. They should be getting report cards that have insights into their child’s strengths and how to best leverage them. They should be getting learning experiences that can be used to navigate the VUCA world they inhabit.

Let us clarify that we are supportive of private schools as one force in the education landscape. But a national education system will always need strong, well-funded government schools. Alongside, fully private schools and public-private partnerships in education can be forces for good. Shielded from untoward political pressure and unshackled from the bureaucracy, they can drive change by becoming innovators. The problem is that a majority of private schools are not seizing these opportunities. Rather, they are comfortable exploiting the poor performance of public institutions on the SLC to provide an old Nokia phone at the latest iPhone price. This need not, indeed must not, be the case.

Because a relevant education and a good performance in the SLC are not mutually exclusive, private schools can easily achieve success on both counts. Schools that invest in teaching the 21st century skills of communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking can still cover the national curriculum effectively. It is absurd to suggest that a student who can build robots by applying critical scientific concepts cannot recall that concept for the SLC.

SLC as a limitation

There is no evidence to support the prevailing argument that private schools are limited in providing fun, exciting learning experiences by the national curriculum and the pressures of the SLC. As the Finnish education system demonstrates, it is possible to provide relevant learning experiences as well as ensure excellent performance on international standardised tests. We encourage PABSON, N-PABSON, and other educational associations to push their member institutions to shed their complacency. Specifically, private schools should undertake the three following improvement.

First, invest in teachers by sharing more profits with them. The sad truth of private education in Nepal is that teachers are underpaid. The unspoken understanding is that teachers will make up for their low salaries by providing tuition classes. This only adds to their already heavy teaching load. Most private school teachers teach six periods a day, which adds up to 990 hours a year. In comparison, teachers in Finland spend  587 hours in the classroom while those in Indonesia spend 734 hours teaching. When schools increase salary and decrease teaching time, they can and should demand that teachers spend more time preparing lessons and engaging students outside the classroom.

Second, make assessment holistic. The national curriculum permits holistic assessment through a Continuous Assessment System (CAS). Using a CAS allows teachers to give as much value to class participation, collaboration skills, and project work as they would to a three-hour exam. Yet, a vast majority of private schools have never so much as attempted to implement CAS. Prioritising a student portfolio as much as an exam would provide parents more data points to understand and leverage their children’s strengths.

Third, schools assignments should challenge students to solve real-world problems and exhibit their solutions publicly. Students are most engaged, and thus learning the most, when they are solving problems that are relevant to them. A class on ecosystems, for example, can involve

designing a vegetable garden on the schools grounds. Exhibiting these designs is a powerful technique to motivate students and assess real-world projects as parents, friends, and family can see what the student’s learned through projects, presentations, and interactions. The tragedy of the ‘science’ fair and other such exhibits in Nepal is that schools often hire outside help to produce polished products that are obviously not the work of students. This practice is not just deceptive but also deprives students of a valuable opportunity to learn skills that are necessary for success in the real world.

Private schools, especially those that cater to a mass-audience of the urban middle-class, have an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their worth. Mid-range schools in Kathmandu can create a model for towns across Nepal by showing how a high-quality education can be provided at a reasonable price. In this way, they can also secure their own futures against attacks that call private education institutions mere profiteers. But a high SLC pass rate by itself is not sufficient evidence that they are providing relevant learning experiences to the children they educate and benefiting the society to which they belong.

Pudasaini and Shrestha are technologists turned educators. They are co-founders of Karkhana, which creates co-curricular after-school programmes. The data used in this column can be explored in detail at:

Published: 27-03-2015 08:26

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