The ill-advised decision taken in 2009 to subject children to a high-stake public examination at the end of class 5 is to continue.
The cabinet decided on 27 June that both the Primary Education Completion examination for class 5 and the Junior School Certificate examination for class 8 should continue until further scrutiny.
Primary and Mass Education Minister Mustafizur Rahmen, facing widespread complaint of parents and educators about the adverse effects of the grade 5 public examination on students and the teaching-learning practices in schools, asked for cabinet approval to abolish the examination; specially since primary education is to be extended to class 8.
The decision-makers, concerned about rocking the boat, sent back the proposal “for further scrutiny,” according to Cabinet Secretary Muhammad Shafiul Alam. Both the PEC and JSC exams would continue “until adequate infrastructural development was made and teachers were trained for the major changes in the primary education system.,” said the Cabinet Secretary.
The cabinet decided to ignore the continuing criticism of the public examination that has spawned a massive upsurge of private tutoring, coaching centre and guidebook business; pushed the cost of primary education beyond the means of many parents; generated question leaks and corruption among teachers and school administrators; and has been a cause of great anxiety and mental pressure on children and parents.
Education experts have raised at least three major objections to a high-stake national public examination for primary education – it diverts attention of teachers and students from learning to preparing for the test; grading a small minority as winners of “golden five” wrongly labels the majority of children as “not good enough,” and quality is best achieved by focusing on teaching and teachers in the classroom, rather than on a public exam.
Should we not have any assessment of children’s learning in primary school? This is a loaded question. We had before 2009 in-school annual and half-yearly examinations, without the hoop-la of PECE, through which we all came through.
What many countries also do is to have tests of essential skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, say at grade 3, 5 and 8 levels, to find out how the school system is doing. These are standardised tests based on essential competencies, not for all subjects and all textbooks, and not meant to give a grade or label to individual students.
A National Student Assessment process, a two-hour examination of Bangla and Math to assess the learning of foundational skills, already exists for primary and junior secondary levels on a sample basis, the scope of which can be widened.
So would the sky have fallen, if it was decided that PECE would not be held in 2016? Hardly. We simply could go back to what existed before 2009. One issue raised is that scholarships are awarded to students based on the PECE results. This looks like the proverbial tail wagging the dog.
A solution would be to have a student population-based quota for scholarships in each upazila and use the NSA instrument for class 5 students to select scholarship awardees. This test could be held in January, after the school year has been completed by class 5 students, not to interrupt regular school activities.
The abolition of PECE would spare our children some of the pain and mis-education they suffer. This itself would not solve numerous problems of education, including how the extension of primary education to grade 8 should be managed. But these other problems should not be an excuse for not taking the right decision on PECE.
The writer is professor emeritus at BRAC University.