Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) recently put forward a proposal to eliminate all examinations until students reach 17 years of age, following in the footsteps of world’s top Finnish education system. The proposal was made considering the high levels of stress and anxiety students are subject to, as a result of the highly competitive examination system in Sri Lanka. While recognising and dealing with undue pressures of exams are important, can we simply borrow system elements from other countries and expect them to work well in our home contexts?
The answer is “no”, according to the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report (WDR). This is because large, country-wide differences exist in the quality of different education systems. In fact, the WDR argues that poor quality education systems are a main underlying cause for the ‘learning crisis’ engulfing many countries around the world; while countries have made significant headway in enrolling children in school, progress in ensuring that these children actually learn and acquire much-needed skills is far less impressive. Although reputed as an overachiever in the developing world in school enrollment and completion rates, Sri Lanka too performs poorly when it comes to learning outcomes: results from national assessments among grade eight students indicated notably low national mean scores of 51% for mathematics, 42% for science, and 36% for English in 2016.
Education systems fail to function effectively due to both ‘misalignment’ and ‘incoherence’, which, if left unaddressed, impede the effectiveness of interventions to improve learning implemented at the school and student levels.
Lack of Alignment toward Learning
Alignment requires the goal of learning to be shared by all components or actors of the system. This becomes difficult when actors have goals other than learning, and learning is not prioritised as the most important. For instance, in a school building project, construction firms and bureaucrats can collude to provide poor-quality infrastructure, since their priority could be maximising profit, rather than improving learning conditions. Or, principals could place more importance on salaries and favouritism over effective and committed leadership, particularly when there are no exams to monitor student progress, and thereby hold principals accountable for schools’ performance. While this does not necessarily indicate that actors involved in the education sector do not care about learning, in poorly managed systems, such competing interests may overshadow learning-aligned interests (Table 1). Finland’s education success is largely owing to its well-aligned system, where all education stakeholders, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, and every school shares the same set of national goals.
Incoherence among Actors
Coherence means that the system components reinforce each other in achieving the goals set by the system and requires all actors to work together for a policy to have an impact. For example, in line with eliminating exams, if Sri Lanka is to adopt a new curriculum that increases emphasis on active learning and creative thinking, that alone will not have a significant impact, unless all actors in the system work together to ensure its effectiveness. Teachers need to be trained on how to use different teaching methods, and they need to be motivated enough to change from previously followed old rote learning approaches which may require less effort. Similarly, students need to be incentivised to learn, even in the absence of exams. Such an approach has worked in Finland, as teachers are some of the best qualified, paid, and respected professionals, and are highly motivated and work together with other actorsto develop novel teaching methods to cater to the needs and interests of students. In contrast, in Sri Lanka, where teachers are poorly trained and paid, they may have little incentive to work with other stakeholders to adopt new innovative ways of teaching and promote student learning if children’s progress is not systematically measured.
Given that Sri Lanka’s current examination system overly burdens a child, restricts creative and critical thinking, and has failed to produce good learning outcomes, changes to this system are no doubt important. But, to ensure that adopted changes will indeed lead to positive outcomes, Sri Lanka should first focus on improving the alignment and coherence of its education system.
Proper assessment of learning is a crucial first step in this regard. Credible and reliable information generated from well-developed learning matrices, if presented in a salient and acceptable manner, can encourage active and collaborative engagement and better service delivery. International assessments can also be powerful political tools; by raising awareness of how a country lags behind its peers in building human capital—a critical ingredient of creating knowledge-based competitive economies which is a common goal of country leaders—it can move policymakers to action. While Sri Lanka does not currently participate in any international assessments, the 2018 budget allocates Rs. 25 million to conduct the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a good starting point in this regard.
To ensure that better information enables reform and garners adequate support for prioritising learning, forming coalitions to advocate for broad-based learning is important. Mobilising all parties who have a stake in learning via information and communication campaigns has proved effective in several countries. For instance, information on poor learning outcomes can be used to gather support for reforms to strengthen teacher accountability. When teachers take more responsibility for student learning, proposals aimed at restructuring exams are also likely to deliver better results.
Moreover, given the vast amount of evidence from diverse settings, and the need for country-specific home-grown solutions, innovation, agility, and adaptation are essential ingredients to deciphering which approaches work best for Sri Lanka. This involves using evidence to identify viable starting points, and then using metrics to monitor output and adjust interventions accordingly. If Sri Lanka is serious about doing away with traditional exams, education stakeholders will need to identify other possible mechanisms to ensure that students master necessary competencies, what methods have worked in other countries and under which conditions, and how such techniques can be best adapted to suit the local context. For instance, it might be prudent to focus on a gradual reduction of exams and assess the effects of such a change, rather than eliminating all exams at once.