Muhammad Kamran Malik
The ongoing pandemic, along with many other lessons, taught us to avoid announcing and celebrating a premature victory. Who could have thought that we would be experiencing a much more severe second wave of the deadly Covid-19 in the summer of 2021? Unfortunately, one of the worst hit sectors is the education sector. Not only have the studies of millions of students been disrupted due to school closures, the jobs of teachers and businesses of private education providers have also received a major hit. According to a World Bank study, school closures and disrupted education have already caused a loss in excess of $ 10 trillion.
Last year in Pakistan, the government decided to cancel the O & A Level Cambridge International exams, but allowed students to progress in their studies through the use of a “predicted grades” arrangement devised by UK exam boards. According to this arrangement, teachers, in collaboration with the school management, were asked to predict the grades they thought their students could have achieved, had the exams gone ahead as per schedule, and award class ranks. To ensure the comparability of these results with previous years, exam boards used an algorithm, a statistical standardization model, which adjusted the predicted grades awarded by school teachers to bring them in line with the results secured by students of the same school in previous years. Thus, the results of the students of 2020 were, in a way, dependent on the performance of students of their school in the Cambridge exams of previous years. In rare cases, the results adjusted through this algorithm turned out to be better than the ones awarded by the teachers, but in most cases (almost 40% cases in the UK), results were downgraded by one or more than one grade. This downgrading was not only due to the overly generous predictions of teachers, but also because of the flawed model used by exam boards to standardize results. In some cases, two students with the same predicted grade ended up on two opposite sides of the grading scale. After facing huge criticism, the exam boards were forced to scrap the controversial statistical model and ended up awarding students the better grade between the predicted one and the one decided by the statistical model. This U-turn of exam boards meant that the percentage of candidates scoring A grades in June 2020 was roughly twice as high as in the June 2019 exam series, with an almost negligible percentage of candidates who could not pass the exams. This grade inflation not only raised the competition for admissions on limited seats in universities, but also reduced the confidence of different stakeholders in the reliability and validity of Cambridge results.
For this year, Of qual, the UK regulator, has created a new system of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) or School Assessed Grades (SAGs), as an alternative to actual exams in countries where exams cannot be held. Unlike the system of predicted results followed by an algorithm last year, the system of SAGs requires schools to share evidence, such as coursework, assignments, class tests, term and mock exams etc. with Cambridge International, along with the assessed grades. Cambridge International will review these results using a rigorous quality assurance process, and either accept them or suggest an amendment. It may withhold the result of a candidate in case it does not agree with the assessed grades sent by the school.
Though this new system of SAGs has a greater number of checks and involves more documentation, such as a centre policy document and filled forms giving details of the reasons for awarding a grade, critics fear that the outcome would not be much different and the grade inflation would be similar to that of the June 2020 exam series. The extra work this system expects teachers to do would be good for nothing, as teachers would still be inclined towards generous grading. The temptation to give students the benefit of doubt might be even stronger this year, as schools that were more careful in awarding predicted grades last year suffered at the expense of those who did not apply due diligence and were overly generous in the prediction of grades.
The not-so-good experience of predicted results last year and a lack of trust in SAGs forced the government of Pakistan to allow actual exams to take place this year, despite the havoc being created by the deadly coronavirus. Some students and their supporters demanded cancellation of exams and the use of SAGs. Though this demand is quite puzzling for me (since most students are likely to get poor results if SAGs are used fairly, due to disrupted education and the generally poor performance of students in the handful of formative assessments schools were able to conduct), it seems students are convinced that results awarded through SAGs would be generous and would favour them. Another hurdle that stopped the government from going for SAGs was its fear that students of Matric and FSc would also demand the same and want exams replaced by SAGs.
However, the government had to partially give in to the demand of students, which got political backing from the opposition as well as the ruling party. On announcing its commitment on 18 April 2021 to hold actual exams, the government took a U-turn on 27 April 2021 and cancelled IGCSE / O Level and AS Level (first part of A Level) exams on rather lame grounds of lack of compliance with SOPs, and asked candidates to take these exams in the Oct/Nov 2021 exam series. There were still two weeks before the first OLevel exam (due to begin on 10 May) and any shortcomings in the compliance with SOPs could have been addressed. Instead, the government took the hasty decision of cancelling exams, a decision that was far from practical, and one in which everyone loses. Students would lose not only the motivation to study, as exams have been postponed for months, but also half a year of A Level, which means they would have just 1.5 years to complete the very rigorous A Level. Many of them may lose a full academic year, as they would not be able to get admission in FSc, classes for which start in September. Teachers and schools would lose, as the new session of A Level would not begin before December. Parents would lose, as they would have to pay additional fees for tuition and revision of IGCSE / O Level. The government would also lose, as it would continue being criticized by students for not going for SAGs.
Mr. Shafqat Mahmood and all provincial education ministers have taken a political position and repeatedly expressed their commitment to not accept SAGs, whereas the option of delaying exams till Oct/Nov 2021 is not feasible at all. Between the two extremes of SAGs and postponing O Level exams, a middle ground could be found by arranging a mini exam series for O Level students in the second half of June or first half of July 2021. Cambridge International arranges a separate exam series for India in February/March every year, and should support the idea of a special mini exam series in June/July, especially when it has a bank of already prepared unseen tests. SAGs, already introduced, could also be modified in a way that not only are candidates able to progress in their studies, but the grades they secure are also fair and reliable. For example, SAGs includes an optional date sheet for centres to hold exams for collection of evidence. To ensure the integrity and fairness of exams, this date sheet, however could be made compulsory for all schools, so that exams are held on the same day and at the same time. These exams should be supervised by British Council staff and should be held in neutral venues, such as schools’ own buildings, big campuses of public sector universities like FC College or other venues used for the ongoing A Level exams. Following SOPs would be easier, as these venues would be used exclusively for O Level exams. The exam papers could be from the bank of unseen tests already prepared by Cambridge, and the scripts of candidates should be sent to Cambridge for marking.
The above solution is a reasonable alternative to full-fledged, actual exams and can be refined with discussion with stakeholders. An urgent action is needed to safeguard the academic interests of thousands of students. – Pak Destiny
Muhammad Kamran Malik
The writer is an educationist and runs a private school.