Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Policy consistency crucial in education

Ardimas Sasdi, Jakarta

Though final exams for high school and junior high are still two months away, controversies surrounding them have already flared up. The public and experts have raised the topic in symposiums, seminars, school board meetings, coffee shops and community meetings.

But the critics and the advocates are still stuck in a stalemate. Each has insisted that their ideas and opinions are worthier than the other's in a discourse that has been dragging on for years, consuming our valuable time and energy.

The critics, for example, have insisted that the exams -- scheduled to take place in May at a cost of at least Rp 300 billion -- are against Law No. 20/2003 on the National Education System, against the move toward decentralization and a waste of state money. Also, the results of the exams could not be used as a tool to gauge the mastery of students on the subjects learned. So they must be abolished. And in exchange the right to organize the exams should be given back to the schools as institutions that know the students better. Stop!

The controversy over the tests, locally known as UN, which include Indonesian language, English and Math for senior high, intensified in 2004 after the government raised the passing grade for the three subjects tested to 4.1 from 3.1. The rise in the passing grade sparked protests from teachers, parents and experts for fear that a large chunk of students would not pass the tests, but the worries proved wrong as the percentage of students who failed was very small.

The government said it would continue to use the testing system in 2005 despite a barrage of criticism from some quarters. And, in an apparent response to the public outcry over the exams, Vice President Jusuf Kalla said last month that the test was necessary to prod students and schools to work harder to achieve higher grades as part of efforts to improve our education system. The passing grade will be raised gradually, he said.

But Kalla's statement failed to appease the critics. Some have even intensified pressure on the government to abolish the tests, arguing that the education system would not collapse with the termination of the testing system.

According to the critics, the exams could be organized by schools. They have faith in the teachers, "who would not abuse the trust given to them as they too are concerned about their names and reputations".

The idea of having such an exam that is organized by schools however, is workable in a country with a good administrative and control system, not in a nation like ours, where the practices of corruption, collusion and nepotism are endemic. Many schools jack up grades to maintain their image and to protect teachers from the brunt of parents of students who failed the tests. Some teachers do these disgraceful deeds to seek favors from the students or their parents in exchange for good marks. Even legislators in some areas were reported to have bought school diplomas to meet the requirements to run in the election. Unfortunately, this practice has permeated all levels of education.

The abolishment of the tests without a replacement will also create a vacuum at the Ministry of National Education on ways to measure and map the performance of schools in each area, an input necessary to design a better education system.

Moreover, many developing countries still use the testing method, despite its weaknesses, as a short cut to improve education quality for two reasons: budgetary constraints and lack of human resources. But the continuous use of the existing system and inaction by the government is a form of arrogance and irresponsibility.

The light at the end of this "controversy tunnel" is that both the critics and the advocates are aware of the grave and pressing problems in our education system. And that something must be done to solve the quandary, to enable our youths to get the best education possible so that they compete in the job market with colleagues from other countries and become responsible and dignified citizens of a democracy.

Ideally, Indonesia should have a blueprint on national education, but molding this grand design will take time. So in the short term the government can begin with pragmatic programs like the enforcement of Law No. 20/2003 on the National Education System and the formation of complimentary bodies like the National Education Standardization Agency (BSNP), whose main tasks will be to organize state exams.

The government should also expedite the establishment of a National Accreditation Body (BAN), which would be responsible for drawing up and maintaining standards on education for secondary education, like BAN for colleges and universities.

Both bodies, manned by credible people and given sufficient funds, can be formed by the government in a relatively short time and without significant hurdles as we have had similar experience before. For example, we have at set up at least five independent bodies to organize state affairs in the last six years, including the highly credible and professional General Elections Commission and the Constitutional Court.

Top officials from the minister to Vice President have expressed their concern over the dismal portrait of our education system, but their concern would be better illustrated not through words but through concrete action. The people are waiting to see whether the government will honor its promise to allocate 20 percent of the budget for education, as made mandatory by the Constitution.

The author is a staff writer of The Jakarta Post.