Education is at its best when de-linked from forced tests of competence
Posted on July 9th, 2012

R Chandrasoma

The recent brouhaha over Z-Scores underlines the fact that at all levels of Sri Lankan society the cherished goal in matters of education is the acquisition of the necessary academic competence to pass examinations. This is, surely, not the same as the genuine learning that truly instills the wherewithal that separates the learned from the ignorant. The fact that learning (in the authentic sense) has little to do with testing is swept aside in the face of the mounting social pressures to weed out the “ƒ”¹…”unfit’ and select the “ƒ”¹…”best’ in a civil order that makes competition the prime force of social change.

This pernicious philosophy “”…” of assessment based on tests deemed the prime activity of education “”…” has little to do with natural learning and the acquision of cognitive skills. It is a truism that learning under challenge “”…” of performance tests and examination gradings “”…” may lead to better rote-learning but is actually a deterrent to the creative development of the innate intellectual potential of the learner. The system of reward and punishment (on which our current examination model is based) is highly effective in rats and other laboratory animals for the rapid instilling of perfomative tasks. It will be agreed by all that we are not rats “”…” nor is the goal of education a “ƒ”¹…”training in procedures’ and the retention of massed data. In this Computer Age, such learning leads to social costs “”…” a citizenry without intellectual independence and creative drives. Shaped by exam-driven learning in their formative years to copy and repeat “”…” not to question and act creatively “”…” we have with us a body of citizens that are swayed by prevailing fashions “”…” be they religious, political or behavioural. That we have not produced in the last half-century any public intellectuals, scientists or writers of any worth is proof of the rottenness of the education we receive in our schools and universities. We have mass-produced doctors and engineers who were exam-prodigies “”…” selected on the baisis of high marks scored at public examinations. Have they excelled as true creative individuals? Have they been a great meliorative force in the public life of our country? Apart from skills in making money and discomfiting the country by strikes and such-like fancies, society has gained little from the “ƒ”¹…”artificial selection’ of such cramming machines.

It is true, of course, that humans do differ in innate abilities and some kind of assessment is necessary in order to make the best use of human resources. The argument we advance here is that mass- examinations are not only a poor way of selection “”…” they have a damaging effect on the quality of learning itself. Learning under the “ƒ”¹…”threat’ of failure leads to the poor performance of those who might excel under truly supportive forms of education. Indeed “”…” as pointed out above “”…” our exam-based champions have proved to be ordinary when facing the “ƒ”¹…”tests of life’ as committed professionals. Future doctors (for example) should have qualities that are certainly not brought out at public examinations. Reports of teachers, school records and direct interviews will be far more effective in selecting the best kind of doctor. The same applies to professionals of all kinds “”…” public examination results that are given at the end of a school course are a poor indicator of future professional success. The weak and misfits are certainly eliminated but the best remain elusive.

It is against this background that we must view the “ƒ”¹…”rumpus’ over Z-scores. The Z “”…” ranking is is a method of ordering the results of a public examination to test competence. We have argued that public tests of any kind give a poor estimate of the future performance of professionals. The tests themselves have a large “ƒ”¹…”error-bar’ in ranking apart from their weaknees as estimates of true ability. Given these plain facts, we are astonished to see a huge brouhaha on the part of worthies ranging from opposition politicians to loud-mouthed editorialists on the damage done by faulty Z-scores. No damage can be done given the inherent errors built into the system. The weakness is in fundamentals,  not the tehnical procedure – a classic instance of putting the cart before the horse. The need, then, is not for better examinations but a better system of learning that pushes testing and examinations to a barely relevant corner.

5 Responses to “Education is at its best when de-linked from forced tests of competence”

  1. AnuD Says:

    In the University as well as in the School ,Teachers have the power to give a certain ranking or a score just studying the behaviour in the class. But, govt exams need certain standard evaluation system in order to compare students from different areas, schools, etc., Z -score is a very simple mathematical probability test. It does not need that much education to handle the test.

    I think, who ever initially handled the test did not think about the repercussions of the presentation of the test score to students. If they changed something, it would have been wise to present the score to students under both conditions. Authorities who handled it did not do a good job and had been lazy, lackadaisical and lousy. In some other systems, when people get caught doing half work they are removed that position and some one who does it complete is appointed. But, Sri Lanka does not have such a system. So, they continue to do the same incomplete work.

    On the other, that was a feast to the opposition political parties who were always looking for the heads of the govt. and they made a big deal out of that.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    Mr Chandrasoma says : “The need, then, is not for better examinations but a better system of learning that pushes testing and examinations to a barely relevant corner”.

    To this end, we propose that at least small but well stocked libraries be made available all over Sri Lanka, particularly in rural areas. Provide computers too (under supervision). Have some books in English (well known children’s literature as well as classics) as well, alongside the mainly Sinhala or Tamil books. It is time for Sri Lankans to think creatively, out of the box, to solve the problems besetting the Nation.

    Albert Eistein did not do well in school. He detested what he called ‘rote learning’ and failed many a test, other than Math &
    Physics ! He worked in a patent office. Yet, he emerged as the greatest scientist of the 20th century and the Father of modern Physics. Imagine what would have happened to his genius if he was forced to continue learning ‘rote style’.

  3. Dham Says:

    This is the latest ploy of the west to leave the smart out and keep the “talker ” in.
    Chandrsoma has not pass exams properly find out the value of examinations than “opinion” of FOOLS.

  4. Naram Says:

    THe few creative individuals who have come out whateverm may be thedifficulties thatare in their way prove what avastpotential there isin the humankind..

    There is much celebration about the finding of a sizeable body of evidence proving the presence of HIggs Boson. THe firstone to propose the field theory was Dr Satyendra Nath Bose, a lacturer at the Deacca University in the days before partition. THe paper he wrote was rejected by the editors of the British based scientific journal. He had the good luck later to find like minded collaborator Einstein with whom Bose developed what are noe called the Bose – Einstein equations. Of corse Dr Bose never received aNoble pize for this gigantic feat.

  5. Naram Says:

    Let me me please add an interesting extract to demonstratethe human potential to come out even from mostdifficult circumstances..

    For the Indian Father of the ‘God Particle,’ a Long Journey from Dhaka


    Courtesy of Falguni Sarkar/The S.N. Bose ProjectSatyendra Nath Bose at Dacca University (now Dhaka) in Bangladesh in the 1930s.

    In the word “boson,” as media reports have plentifully pointed out during the past two days, is contained the surname of Satyendra Nath Bose, the Calcutta physicist who first mathematically described the class of particles to which he gave his name. As was common with Indian scientists in the early 20th century, however, his work might easily have eluded international recognition. Like the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam, Mr. Bose was saved from obscurity by a generous and influential mentor in Europe. In Mr. Bose’s case, that mentor turned out to be one of the greatest physicists of them all: Albert Einstein.

    The Long View

    Current events through the lens of history.
    In 1921, Mr. Bose moved from the faculty of the University of Calcutta to that of the University of Dhaka. He had already published papers with his friend and colleague Meghnad Saha, working particularly equations of state, which describe how matter behaves under differing sets of physical conditions. Mr. Bose was not entirely happy in Dhaka at first. A month after he moved, he wrote to Mr. Saha:

    Work has not yet started. [The university has] quite a few things but due to utter neglect they are in a bad way. Perhaps I need not elaborate. On the table of the sahibs are scattered lots of Nicol prisms, lens and eye-pieces. It would require a lot of research to determine which one belongs to which apparatus. We do suffer from a lack of journals here, but the authorities of the new university have promised to place orders for some of them along with their back numbers. Talk is going on about having a separate science library.

    After he settled in, Mr. Bose began to worry away at the intricacies of black-body radiation. In 1918, Max Planck had won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that objects emit radiation in discrete packets of energy, called quanta; he had also set down an equation governing this process. But as C.S. Unnikrishnan, a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research told me, Mr. Bose was troubled by a perceived inconsistency in Mr. Planck’s process. “These quanta were treated as particles of light, but the equation simultaneously assumed that radiation was behaving like waves,” Mr. Unnikrishnan said. “Somewhere this was cheating – that was Bose’s impression. So he had to invent a way of counting the particles in a ‘gas’ of light, at various possible energy states, and still have Planck’s law hold good. He was reverse-engineering Planck’s equation, in a way.”

    Much later, in 1970, Mr. Bose would tell an interviewer named Jagdish Mehra:

    As a teacher who had to make these things clear to his students, I was aware of the conflicts involved and had thought about them. I wanted to know how to grapple with the difficulty in my own way. It was not some teacher who asked me to go and solve this little problem. I wanted to know. And that led me to apply statistics.

    The paper he wrote, titled “Planck’s Law and the Light-Quantum Hypothesis,” was first rejected by a referee at the London-based journal named Philosophical Magazine, which had published some of Mr. Bose’s previous papers. Undeterred, Mr. Bose sent it, in the summer of 1924, to Berlin, to the desk of Mr. Einstein, who had won his own Nobel three years earlier. Mr. Einstein received dozens of such manuscripts every day, and he was already turning away from the field of quantum mechanics to work out larger unified theories. (In “Subtle is the Lord,” Abraham Pais noted that “Einstein said of his work in quantum statistics, ‘That’s only by the way.’”) But perhaps something about Mr. Bose’s accompanying letter caught Einstein’s eye:

    Respected Master,
    I have ventured to send you the accompanying article for your perusal and opinion. I am anxious to know what you think of it… I do not know sufficient German to translate the paper. If you think the paper worth publication I shall be grateful if you arrange for its publication in Zeitschrift fur Physik. Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. Because we are all your pupils though profiting only by your teachings through your writings. I do not know whether you still remember that somebody from Calcutta asked your permission to translate your papers on Relativity in English. You acceded to the request. The book has since been published. I was the one who translated your paper on Generalised Relativity.
    Yours faithfully
    S. N. Bose

    Courtesy of Falguni Sarkar/The S.N. Bose ProjectA passport photograph of Satyendra Nath Bose taken before he left for Europe in 1924 where he met Albert Einstein.

    Mr. Einstein did indeed think the paper worth publication. Within a month, he had translated and submitted it to Zeitschrift für Physik, appending a note at the end of its four concise, equation-filled pages: “In my opinion Bose’s derivation signifies an important advance.” Mr. Einstein would take Mr. Bose’s work further still, applying his statistical techniques to “count” atoms in an ordinary gas, and to discover the low-energy states of particles in the supercooled gases known now as Bose-Einstein Condensates.

    The publication of this paper – and Mr. Einstein’s championing of it – earned Mr. Bose a two-year leave of absence to conduct research in Europe. His university had been reluctant to grant him this leave, but when Mr. Einstein sent him a hand-written postcard acknowledging the importance of his contribution, “it solved all problems,” Mr. Bose told Mr. Mehra, who wrote a short biography of him for the Royal Society in 1975. “That little thing gave me a sort of passport to the study leave. They gave me leave for two years and rather generous terms. I received a good stipend. They also gave a separation allowance for the family, otherwise I would not have been able to go abroad at all. … Then I also got a visa from the German Consulate just by showing them Einstein’s card. They did not require me to pay the fee for the visa!”

    In Paris, Mr. Bose worked with Maurice de Broglie and Marie Curie, armed with letters of introduction from a French physicist named Paul Langevin. “She was very nice,” he told Mr. Mehra about Ms. Curie. “I told her that I would remain in Paris about six months and learn French well, but I wasn’t able to tell her that I knew sufficient French already and could manage to work in her laboratory. She preferred to have her own ideas and told me that I better be around a long time, not hurry, and concentrate on the language.”

    Courtesy of Falguni Sarkar/The S.N. Bose ProjectFormer prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, left, and Satyendra Nath Bose at the Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal. Mr. Bose was the vice chancellor of the university between 1956-1959.

    Mr. Bose met Mr. Einstein only in late 1925, in Berlin. That meeting, he recalled, “was most interesting. He wanted to know how I had hit upon the idea of deriving Planck’s law in this way. Then he challenged me. He wanted to find out whether my hypothesis…did really mean something novel about the interaction of quanta, and whether I could work out the details of this business.” These were momentous meetings for Mr. Bose. In 1972, in the American Journal of Physics, William Blanpied wrote after an interview with Mr. Bose: “Even more than forty years later, one still has the impression that the young Bose was terribly intimidated by Europeans… The nature of British rule in India…had the effect of making the subject people believe that they really were inferior.”

    Returning to Dhaka in 1926, Mr. Bose earned a professorship in physics, but he did not publish for a long time thereafter. His interests wandered – over the constantly shifting terrain of physics, but also into other fields, such as philosophy, anthropology, literature and the surging Indian independence movement. Only in 1937 did he publish his next physics paper; in the early 1950s, he worked on unified field theories, into which Mr. Einstein had thrown himself so completely, but these were hardly groundbreaking. “I was not really in science anymore,” Mr. Bose would tell Mr. Mehra, “I was like a comet, a comet which came once and never returned again.”

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