Policy Rethink: The SLC Failure

On June 14, 2014:

The recent dismal student performance in the nationwide School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exam underscores the urgent need among education policy makers to evaluate the existing policy designs. While the Department of Education appears to solely blame the sheer failure towards the teachers, it is inevitably true that questioning the inherent commitment of the teachers alone won't lead to massive improvement in learning outcomes of children. Moreover, the government needs to turn over a new leaf and make a paradigm shift in the current education policy framework that has largely focused on expanding budget and promoting input-based programs.

The staggering figures put forth by the Office of Controller of Examinations (OCE) are utterly disappointing, with only 43.92 percentage of the students successfully passing the SLC examination. What's more unfortunate is the continuous trend of poor student performances every year, despite OCE's favorably mild policy to provide grace marks to students who failed in not more than two subjects. Strikingly, 6.03 percentage of the successful students would have failed the exam, unless the OCE assigned five additional grace marks. Put together, the government can't afford to be content with the de rigueur minimum of making unfulfilled promises, given a significantly higher pass percentage among the boys (49.43%) compared to the girls (38.27%).

A major policy rethink evaluating the factors behind poor student performances in the SLC examination is critical for two primary reasons. First, high educational quality at the grade 10-level among majority of the students cannot be attained unless learning achievement at the primary level is completely mastered. This, in turn, seeks the need to carry out an influx of public sector interventions at the early stages of learning than those done at the later stages. Second, the outright failure of the students in the light of government's long-term strategic School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) has questioned its efficacy on achieving fundamental objectives of basic (comprising 70% of educational budget allocation) and secondary education for the last five years.

At one level, the government claims that student results will improve drastically in the coming years with the arrival of new teachers from Teachers Service Commission. Further, the cohort of students who appeared in the exam this year was enrolled in grade 1 ten years ago, in the midst of the Maoist insurgency. Although the government reports that these students afflicted with the Maoist terror lacked strong foundation at the primary level, the fact remains that pass percentage stayed almost the same in the earlier years. To exemplify, only 38.72% and 40.3% of the total students succeeded in the SLC exams in 2005 and 2006. Similarly, students performed remarkably well in between 2008 and 2010 when the government decided to cover materials only from grade 10, as opposed to grade 9 and grade 10 combined. Given these raw data, government's half-baked claim to resort to political instability as the only factor causing poor student performances appears to throw dust in the eyes of the public.

The government, however, has undertaken minimally laudable efforts to measure the learning achievement at the lower grade level. One of the key SSR indicators of learning achievement during the base year 2009-10 reports that the national average score for grade five cohort in core subjects is mere 53%. Although education experts argue that it is not a meaningful measure to study variation in learning levels of children within Nepal, the impending need to perform rigorously comparable assessments of learning achievement in math, reading and science can't be blatantly ignored. One of the ways the government needs to address the poor SLC remarks is a continuous process of measuring learning outcomes at specific grades, grade 5 and 8, ensuring that children retain what the learn in the class room and crafting subsequent policies based on these assessments.

At another level, some of the education experts have questioned the validity of the examination and its underlying rigor. While the fundamental claim of the opponents is fairly valid, getting rid of the SLC exam completely will not address the widening gap of the poor students in public and private schools. Regardless of the format of the exam that the government employs, what's unfortunately true is that student's learning outcomes haven't improved exponentially, specifically among the female students.

This, however, gives the government a perfect opportunity to experiment with different teaching models, such as female teachers teaching female students in specific subjects. Substantial empirical evidence in the developing world bolsters the claim that female students fare better in academic and non-academic outcomes when they are taught by female teachers in the class rooms. Additionally, government's obsession with enrollment data fail to provide concrete evidence on attainment differentials by the socio-economic student characteristics. Because attending schools does not completely translate into effective learning levels, one needs to observe learning trajectory of school-going children over time.

More importantly, the government needs to give up the traditional approach on supply side-oriented policy, and emphasize on incentive based mechanism. Given that Nepal spends 4.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) on education, a major shift in emphasis is necessary because several rigorous studies have concluded low correlations between school spending and student learning outcomes. This has resulted the need for incorporating accountability in teacher performances, specifically rewarding and penalizing teachers for positive and negative student performances respectively.

In conclusion, we need to undertake more substantial and rigorous research to better understand the current status of children attending primary schools for better SLC forecasts. It, therefore, behooves the government, policy makers and researchers to seriously consider making a major shift in educational policy to improve poor student performances in the SLC examination.

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