Held on October 17, 2020, via Zoom
Assessments in Primary Education with a focus on the Grade five Scholarship Examination in Sri Lanka
- Ms. Sanuja Goonetilleke and Dr. Sujata Gamage, Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL)
- Professor Angela Little, Professor Emerita at UCL Institute of Education, UK
- Dr. Longkai Wu, Research Scientist at the National Institute of Education, Singapore (Presentation)
- Mr. Muthu Sivagnanam, Former Director of Primary Education, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka
- Dr. Tara de Mel, EFSL
In additional to the review panel, participants included Dr. Lilamani Ginige, former Deputy Director General of the National Institute of Education, Sri Lanka, Ms. Priyatha Nanayakkara, Director of Education, Mathematics Department, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka and Dr. Esther Care, Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Australia, and representation form the private sector, and NGO and civil society sector in Sri Lanka.
This was the first of EFSL’s Policy Research Roundtable (PRR) sessions. In the background to a PRR, an education policy researcher works with EFSL to develop a draft policy research paper, which is then reviewed by eminent research and policy professionals. During the PRR itself, the researcher presents a synthesis of the policy research, followed by brief comments provided by the reviewer. Then, the PRR involves all participants in an open discussion on the topic hand. EFSL will be hosting more PRRs in the months to come.
The policy environment for this PRR is the draft report by the 2020 Presidential Task Force on Education, which proposes that the current Grade 5 Scholarship Exam (G5SE) be replaced with a “suitable test for admission into secondary schools. The test should focus on emotional intelligence, general ability/aptitude, and essential learning competencies.”
EFSL’s presentation outlined the theories underlying assessment and evaluation, chiefly from C.W.W. Kannangara’s 1943 outline on education reforms, Sri Lanka’s National Institute of Education Teacher Guides, and reports by OECD and UNESCO.
EFSL compared various primary education systems in Sri Lanka, the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, and Finland, and noted that Sri Lanka tests its students earliest in comparison to other countries. Further, EFSL noted that at present Sri Lanka does not emphasize assessing critical thinking, reasoning, and applicability in skills in students. EFSL also noted the difference between formative assessment (to improve teaching and learning over time) and summative assessment (more definitive, at one point in time).
Using extensive literature, EFSL also noted the shortfalls in current implementation of G5SE. Key among these are an emphasis on rote learning and exam performance at the expense of other types of learning and assessment, negative impact on social-emotional wellbeing of students, negative impact on teachers’ professional development, lack of vacancies for high-performing yet disadvantaged students in secondary schools, the tendency for high performers on the G5SE to already attend well-resourced schools, and the inadequacy of the current bursary award of 500 LKR.
In the draft paper and presentation, EFSL proposed a set of recommendations to address issues of content and equity.
#1. Rename G5SE as Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT)
#2. Limit testing to Numeracy, Literacy, and General Intelligence
#3. Gradually bring Mathematics questions up to international standards
#4. Evaluate the efficacy of the school environment (not individual students) for social-emotional learning (SEL) outcomes
#5: Rank all secondary schools against national benchmarks
#6: Ensure sufficient spaces in higher ranked schools for high achievers in SSAT
#7: Give priority to high performing students from low-ranked schools
#8. Provide bursaries to cover relocation costs for all disadvantaged children entitled to relocate
Professor Little posited the question of why a test for secondary school admission is needed at all, and suggested that ‘assessment’ could also investigate or diagnose the day-to-day, more informal activities of teaching and learning that take place in classrooms in addition to more formal examinations.
Dr. Wu agreed that emotional intelligence (EQ) is difficult to ‘assess’ alongside assessing skills in numeracy, language, and general intelligence (IQ). He described Singapore’s current efforts to make assessments less competitive and more demonstrative of each student’s achievement levels.
Mr. Sivagnanam pointed to the example of Finland and its lack of exams. He proposed a system of continuous (formative) assessment for improved teaching and learning and noted how the current examination mindset overshadows Sri Lanka’s primary curriculum.
All reviewers propose specific changes to draft policy research paper.
Several noted that the high social demand for such a test in Sri Lanka is due to the lack of high-quality schools in the country. While long-term solutions should eliminate the need for such an exam in the future, at the present it is one of the only options for educational mobility for high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The creation of a roadmap towards this goal, the inclusion of participatory approaches in policy design/reform, and the reframing of the exam as more child-friendly, were also discussed.