About a week ago over 360,000 children applied for admission to the grade 5 scholarship exam, popularly known as the ‘Shishyathwaya’.
The exam and assessment is set up to provide children who pass, an opportunity to transfer to a better state school. The opportunity to pass the exam is considered by many parents to be a worthy consideration in improving a child’s life chances and prospects.
The fact that the exam is pitched and recognised as an opportunity, is in itself acknowledgement that many schools do not meet the criteria of enabling many children the chance to fulfill their potential or to support children who are able to do so. Then again this situation doesn’t occur just in Sri Lanka, the Eleven Plus examination in the UK aims to relocate qualifying pupils to Grammar schools where provision is perceived to be better.
The ‘Shishyathwaya’ examination, has however, taken on new heights with many parents and schools featuring that passing the examination is of tremendous status for both the family and the school. Many children commence preparation for the exam from grade 3 and attend intense classes, most often all day on Saturdays, for three years leading up to the exam. Parents pay as much as Rs 1000 per tuition class. Some schools offer extra classes as well, so as to secure as many passes per school. There are lucrative offers of financial bonus from institutions for those students who have passed the Shishyathwaya; this bonus or reward is also an accolade. Many do feel that the Shishyathwaya is a growing menace which places undue pressure on children. Taking the exam is not mandatory but the compulsion to do so is driven by necessity and the culture of schooling.
"There are lucrative offers of financial bonus from institutions for those students who have passed the Shishyathwaya; this bonus or reward is also an accolade"
The exam itself presents many challenges. One of which is the prospect of a leaked paper as parents and teachers scramble to predict or access the paper ahead. A news text alert detailed “All tuition/ revision classes, distribution of question papers for Year 5 scholarship exam banned from 19th August midnight to 25th August 12 noon. -Examinations Chief”;
The examination was on the 26th of August 2013. The ban on classes is ahead of leaked papers in the previous year, and while it is recommended that the children do not attend crammeries ahead and either know what is needed by this juncture of a week ahead, the fallacy lies with the Department of Examinations and the Ministry of Education being unable to secure the papers in a professional manner, resulting in many papers, not just the contents of the scholarship examination, being leaked ahead of the exam.
"The ‘Shishyathwaya’ examination, has however, taken on new heights with many parents and schools featuring that passing the examination is of tremendous status for both the family and the school"
The examination itself lasts an hour and a half and has a section on Science, Language, and Maths as well as a couple of short questions on English and Tamil. Much of the examination is verbose and wordy so caters to children who demonstrate linguistic ability. The Maths component is fair and ranges from identifying patterns and sequences. Mostly, the exam is suited to a child who would have a penchant for remembering copious facts. On the other hand it is also possible to feature that the knowledge test is very local and inward looking, but then this is a known failing of our syllabi and as the test is stipulated to be knowledge gained in the years 3 4 and 5, and so the parameters of testing are pre-defined.The bulk of the paper is knowledge based and there is little scope to test spatial awareness, logic and reasoning, and non-verbal or verbal reasoning, which are the benchmarks of fair testing and assessment which go beyond to preclude excessive coaching and tutoring. The challenge for many of the students would be the verbose question which appears to test a child’s moral judgment. The mark scheme for this section is high and relies very much on the suggested, subjective, stock answer, leaving the marker the inability to use discretion with a favourable and appropriate answer.
The Edulanka website, just one of the many which features a bank of past papers and suggested answers, had over 16,000 hits and this is just for those who have access to the internet. Parents and many teachers try as best as they can but the pressure on the child is tremendous, and one child remarked ‘kandak wage igenagathata, kendak wage ave,’ indicating the mountain of work to cope with, in order to pass the exam. The damning effect of not passing does have a detrimental effect on the child.
Despite the challenges to the paper, what appears fundamental is that the examination is valued by many for the opportunity of attending a national school. However the crux of the issue is that parents do value education, do consider that the scholarship exam would be a mode of access and so preparing ones child is of benefit.
The real effort should lie with ensuring there is a fair distribution of quality teachers, that provision of schools is fairly distributed and that infrastructure development should focus on schools.
We are after all talking about our most valued asset, human capital.