Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Mark ups in school tests and ranking fail all

Simon Marcus Gower, Jakarta

Test scores being marked up to give students better scores than they actually got -- this kind of thing has been observed previously and, to say the least, it is a practice that has to be viewed with considerable concern. The ethics of such practices are quite apparent but they also undermine the whole value of the tests originally.

Recently there has been the additional specter of the national exam (the UAN) scores being subjected to "conversion" and "recalculation formulae". Among the reasons given for this latest approach is to attempt to address the considerable disparities to be found in the quality of educational provision across the country. There may well be entirely genuine concerns at the heart of such moves but their effects need to be considered.

Inevitably any score "conversions" or "recalculations" are going to raise doubts and even fears in both the minds of examines and examiners. Naturally, if you tell an examine that his score was eighty-five percent and then tell him "oh, sorry, wait a minute we have to make a recalculation and it looks like your score will not be that" the examine is going to feel uncomfortable -- irregardless of whether his score goes up or down.

Ultimately everyone engaged in the scenario here -- examines, examiners and others -- needs to be able to conclude that the examination is both valid and a credible reflection and assessment of what has been achieved. Unfortunately, though, it does seem as though examinations are being left in the realms of invalidity and incredibility.

The manner in which tests and examinations are applied and utilized in schools is such that too often any real value to them is left on the periphery. There is little doubt that tests and examinations are not being used as positive indicators as to how a student is doing and making an informed assessment of areas that need improvement. They are, instead, much more consistently viewed as a way of placing a student's name on a ranking list that, under greater analysis, could be viewed as arbitrary and ultimately unfair.

The notion of ranking students is something that really ought to be more carefully considered too. Often it is apparent that ranking is neither an accurate reflection of students' ability nor is a positive input or influence into the life of the student. Undoubtedly there are elements of "competition" to be found in amongst the notion and usage of ranking. Indeed, teachers have been heard explaining it in just these terms.

Some teachers will defend ranking, and even their use of tests, as a way of encouraging the students to compete with each other; improving their scores in a comparative way. That is looking at their own scores and then comparing them with others and seeing that they need to improve. The use of class averages in report books is also seen as part of this process of competition through comparison that leads students to improve their scores.

It would perhaps be nice to be reassured by this kind of theory but somehow in reality it just does not seem to work with consistency and strength to be so reassuring. It is particularly lacking if we are truly looking for evidence of true learning being achieved in the classroom.

Too often the application and results of tests are not reviewed in a manner that allows them to form useful feedback to the students. Instead an obsession with the test score alone and what it means in terms of ranking leaves students either forgetful or negligent of their learning.

In a sense, the students can end up as little more than the likes of greyhounds racing around a race-track after a false rabbit. Any time for them to consider and reflect on what they have achieved and learnt is left on the edge of people's consideration -- including teachers. They have, effectively, just been "going through the paces", just been "processed" rather than been guided and learnt from the test-taking experience and the results of the test other than the numbered score and/ or ranking.

This debilitates the test-taking process and the test itself. A test can prove a beneficial input into the learning process; offering a sign-post, signaling directions needed to be taken and potentially mapping out continuing learning. In this way a test becomes a useful part (even partner) in the learning process. Sometimes tests are even used as weapons with which to badger students into submission or impose control and this is a near total misappropriation of the whole process.

Tests and examinations can, and really should, form a positive and useful guide and source of information along the road(s) to learning but too often they end up being viewed as negative and seminal moments in the learning process that effectively pigeon- hole people. Certainly a test or examination can be a seminal moment but as such it should be an indicator of what has been achieved and what still may and/ or needs to be achieved.

There are occasions where tests and subsequent rankings are viewed as such powerfully seminal moments that they end up being counter-productive and even destructive. Cases have been documented of students doing themselves harm because their test scores or rankings were not what they expected or hoped for. These can be overt and very apparent indicators of negative outcomes but other less visible results may accrue too.

For example, students can be encountered who essentially have very low self-esteem and, probably worst of all, their mental state does not at all fairly reflect on who they are, what they have accomplished and what they can actually achieve in the future. Because schools -- with endless testing and prescriptive ranking -- end up pigeon-holing a student, the student can be literally forced to come to a negative, depressing and even desperate conclusion.

Rather than positively reinforcing and enhancing a student's strengths, there can be a tendency to negatively dwell upon weaknesses and so construe the student as failing and a failure. The more prescient reality may be that the manner in which the system of education is set up -- with potentially unreliable examinations and therefore dubious lists of rankings -- is failing to accurately and fairly reflect what students are actually capable of.

"Conversions" of exam scores suggests manipulative practices may be at work. Statistics should not be so manipulated but as the Scottish writer Andrew Lang once noted people may "use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts -- for support rather than for illumination". Examination and test scores should be used to illuminate the way ahead for education; if they do not then they may well be failing us all.

The writer is Executive Principal of the High/Scope Indonesia School. The opinions expressed above are personal.