school exam policy | The star of the day

The revival of apprenticeships as well as the overall reform of the education sector should now be a top priority for the authorities. File photo: star

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The revival of apprenticeships as well as the overall reform of the education sector should now be a top priority for the authorities. File photo: star

In 2009, the government introduced the Primary Education Completion Examination (PECE), a compulsory test for 5th graders to certify completion of the primary cycle. The PECE results marked a dramatic increase in the completion rate. In the mid-2000s, school enrollment rates in Bangladesh were above 90%, but before 2009 many children were dropping out and the completion rate was only around 50%. In 2015, completion reached around 80%, where it has remained since. Of the students who attend PECE, more than 95% obtain at least a basic pass.

If we stop here, it may seem that Bangladesh has achieved near universal primary education. But what does an 80% completion rate or a 95% PECE pass rate mean in terms of learning?

One source of evidence is a 2015 study by Nath and colleagues, who expressed concern that PECE is making primary school too “exam-centric”. Teachers “teach until the test”. Parents have increased payments for one-to-one tuition, usually provided by students’ teachers. In the study survey, the average expenditure per student for PECE-related activities was over Tk 8,000. Most of it was spent on private lessons. Other significant expenses were for coaching organized by the school and PECE guides.

Another source of data comes from the World Bank’s simple “learning poverty” index. The index estimates the proportion of children aged 10 to 14 who cannot read at a basic level. The index is calculated as the sum of two groups: 1) out-of-school children assumed unable to read; and 2) children in grade 5 but unable to read at basic level. In Bangladesh, around 20 out of 100 children between the ages of 10 and 14 do not go to school. Of the 80 children in school, about half can read at a basic level. Overall, in Bangladesh, the estimated “poor learners” make up 58% of the total. The percentages of poor learners in India are 55% and 75% in Pakistan. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, only 15% are in a situation of low learning.

The implication of the learning poverty index is depressing: many children pass the PECE but cannot read. Skeptics may argue that the low learning index is inaccurate. A check on the index is the National Student Assessment (NSA), a survey conducted by the Board of Primary Education every two years. This survey assesses large samples of children in primary school on their ability to read Bengali and do basic calculations. Unfortunately, results prior to 2009 are not comparable to more recent results. Surveys conducted in the 2010s are comparable and show only minor changes from 2011. For example, in the 2017 NSA survey, 56% of grade 5 students were at “basic” or “below grade” level. base level “. The NSA’s definition of “basic” is that students “can read grade-appropriate words and short, easy sentences with hesitation and errors; can read grade-appropriate text aloud slowly and with errors” . The NSA defined the “desirable” level as students above the basic level in Bengali reading and mathematics. Obviously, the NSA did not assess out-of-school children. The more or less equivalent estimate of “learning poor” based on the NSA result is 65%.

Clearly, learning has never been a top government priority in Bangladesh or anywhere else in South Asia (other than Sri Lanka and a few Indian states). Political leaders focus on school enrollment, the number of teachers recruited and schools built, and free textbooks printed and distributed. But forcing students to spend five years in primary school and not learn basic reading and math skills is a betrayal of children and their families. A business as usual approach will not solve our learning crisis, which has been compounded by the long Covid-induced school closures. A recovery and catch-up approach to helping students acquire essential foundational skills was therefore essential even before the pandemic – it has become more urgent now.

The good news is that politicians, if they put a premium on academic learning outcomes, can make significant improvements, even in neighborhoods where children’s families have few books and many parents are illiterate. For example, in India, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ruled the state of Delhi for almost a decade. In recent years, secondary school results in public schools have surpassed private school results, which was unthinkable ten years earlier.

The government of Bangladesh should therefore take effective measures to ensure that all children have enough interesting books to read, that children are encouraged to read and that schools are clean. A supply of textbooks and clean schools are not enough on their own. Teachers play a crucial role. They must be well trained and able to promote learning. They must not serve as “vote banks” at election time. In addition, the time currently devoted to the task in primary school is not sufficient. Increasing teaching time can be politically sensitive, but improvements require a convergence of priorities among key stakeholder groups, including politicians, education officials, teachers and parents.

At a recent press conference, the Minister of State for Primary and Mass Education was unable to say whether he would drop PECE this year. He concluded by saying that they would review the plan later. This indecision does not help. Perhaps they do not yet have the power to suppress the PECE. But it is important that we recognize the importance of overcoming the learning loss caused over the past two years.

Shahidul Islam is a researcher in education policy.
John Richards is a professor in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, Canada.

Norma A. Roth