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“Pass or fail?” (edited version in The Fiji Times, 19 Dec. 2015

19/12/2015

Pass or Fail? (edited version in The Fiji Times, 19 Dec. 2015)
Professor Wadan Narsey

Sitting here in sunny Brisbane, my peaceful reverie was greatly disturbed, and my holiday became a “busman’s holiday”, when I read the online Fiji Times article by Nasik Swami (17 December 2015) headed “Year 13 students pass exams”.

The ordinary reader would immediately jump to the joyful conclusion that all 7057 students who sat the exams had “passed”.

But the Minister for Education, the Hon Dr Mahendra Reddy claimed that he had not said that they had all passed but “I want everyone to understand that no student who has undertaken Year 13 examination has failed. This is the measure of the level of attainment,” Dr Reddy said.

With the Minister’s own statistics showing that large numbers of students were actually “failing” in all the subject areas, what does he mean that “no one had failed”?

Is the Minister leading the Fiji public up the garden path by trying to be “populist”?

Is the Minister now “passing the buck” (pun intended) to the universities and technical colleges, and the TELs Board?

Is he aware that with his ill-though public utterances, he is seriously undermining the international academic reputation of Fiji’s secondary schools?

Subject pass rates?

Dr Reddy is quoted as saying that for 2015, the pass rates were as follows, with previous year’s pass rates in brackets)

Mathematics:  42%     (15%)

Biology:          40%     (14%)

Chemistry:      34%     (10%)

Physics:           57%     (28%)

These appear to be improvements all round, taking these numbers at face value.

But the same statistics imply, with some simple arithmetic, that in:

Mathematics:  58%   FAILED

Biology:          60%   FAILED

Chemistry:      66%   FAILED

Physics:           43%   FAILED

(Journalists, please ask the Minister what happened in English).

With large numbers of students failing these four subject areas (and also English, I suspect), it is grossly misleading the public to claim that “no students sitting Year 13 have failed”.

Entry to tertiary institutions: passing the buck?

Then the Minister announced “all students who completed Year 13 could enter university or technical colleges”.

But the FBC TV reported the next day, that these students who had completed Year 13 “were eligible to be funded by TELS or get a scholarship as long as they are able to get into a particular program in the university of technical colleges:.

To a layman, “completed” means that they sat their bums on their designated desks for the school year, sat their exams, which were marked and graded, and results announced to the students, defensively called “provisional results” by the MoE.

You might well ask, why would the MoE give out “provisional results”?  Duh. Of course, this allows the MoE to backtrack down the line:  “the results were only provisional, you know.  We have now found the mistakes that the public have pointed out.  Don’t forget, I am only a provisional minister, until the Forces decide otherwise, which could be any day now!”.

But what if the universities and technical colleges think that the students are not up to standard in the relevant subjects, especially given that large proportions of them have FAILED the exams, and many probably miserably.

The Minister has “passed the buck” to tertiary institutions for rejecting students he has claimed are “eligible to enter universities and technical colleges.

What if universities and technical colleges accept students with low marks in some low level courses for whatever reason (including revenue objectives) BUT the TELS Board thinks that they are not worthy of getting loans or scholarships, or they have run out of funds

Like Pontius Pilate, the Minister will have washed his hands off the secondary school graduates and “passed” the buck to the TELS board for rejecting students.

Count your blessings: at least, the Minister is now not telling universities and technical colleges that they must accept all these students who “completed Year 13”.

What extent of improvements?

The Minister claimed that he was “raising the bar”, a concept well understood by high jump gold medal winner Minister Iliesa Delana: the “bar” is being raised, and the high jumper must jump higher, by a centimetre or two.

Did the Ministry of Education therefore make the Year 13 Examinations more difficult, while simultaneously claiming major improvements in students’ performance?

But realistically, in one year, with the Minister cracking the whip, one might expect improvements in pass rates of perhaps 5% or 10%, which would indeed be good.

But how can there be more than 240% improvements in Chemistry or 186% improvement in Biology pass rates, as indicated in the table?

Pass rate

2014

Pass rate

2015

%

Improvement

Chemistry: 10 34 240
Biology: 14 40 186
Mathematics: 15 42 180
Physics: 28 57 104

 

School principals and teachers should note that there is more here than meets the eye.

The students could hardly have put on a spurt of learning, when they have been already assured they will “move up” regardless of how they perform in exams.

Question 1: Are the “higher pass rates” are being obtained by setting easier examinations questions (i.e. lowering the “bar”)? 

Question 2:  Or are examiners and script markers being more lenient in awarding marks, either because of pressure from the Ministry of Education, or “self-censorship” as a self-preservation measure?

Question 3:  Or both the above?

No need for the hype

The public (and I) have sympathy for the Minister’s efforts to reverse the negative policies under the previous Minister of Education.

But it does not help if Dr Reddy keeps presenting selective bits of statistics, claiming that even though the “bar of excellence is being raised”, there have been massive improvements under his command, when no one knows how reliable are the statistics he is quoting.

The Minister is slowly moving into Fiji’s Cloud Cuckoo Land just like the CEO of one milling company which keeps trumpeting, month after month, year after year, that a major recovery has been under way because of his leadership (sometimes attributed to the Greater Leader), while the hard “objective” data indicates that sugar production is still way below that of 2006.

In education, unfortunately, the Fiji public must depend on “subjective” statistics “produced” by the MoE.

Fiji’s Education Commission might have some idea of the current trend in education standards, but they are not revealing anything to the public (hah, jobs are at stake here).

The vice chancellors of Fiji’s tertiary institutions must know what is happening to the quality of students they have been accepting, but they are keeping quiet for reasons that can be guessed (hah, jobs are at stake here).

School managements and principals could set up independent Committees of Subject Teachers, who could easily scrutinize the standards of examinations questions to see what is happening to “the bar of excellence”, but they are too afraid to do so.

This may be an appropriate opportunity to establish an Education Commission of Experts (dream on), or a Joint Parliamentary Committee of less-than-expert politicians (now that’s more likely).

Or the Fiji Government can wait until external judges get into the act (may be happening already).

International bar of excellence

In the colonial days, Fiji students wanting to go to university abroad had to sit the British Cambridge Examination, or the NZ University Entrance Examination, because local exams were not to be trusted.

Some years ago when my children were applying to Australian universities, I found to my surprise that Fiji’s secondary school exam results were being given greater credibility by some good Australian universities than USP Foundation results.

Today, I suspect that overseas tertiary institutions will be re-examining their position, given the extraordinary revelations by the Minister of Education that:

(a) in recent years, that there has been a massive and unacceptable scaling of marks in Fiji’s national examinations;

(b) that now, students will now be “moved up” in the school system whether they pass or fail; and that

(c) “no student who completed Year 13 has failed”.

Will Fiji soon be reverting to colonial times, with our students once more having to sit overseas university entrance exams to qualify for entry to quality tertiary institutions abroad?

Keep your eyes open, parents, in between watching rugby sevens and Bollywood, 24/7.

Drat it.

Back to my sunny holiday.

 

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