The matriculation graduate with distinction could hardly write a piece on a given topic though he could mechanically write an application for a sick leave or “I have an urgent piece of work at home, so I beg to say please grant a one-day leave”.

My respectable teacher, the late Zubaida Bana shared this incident with me, once during a discussion with her about the filthy system of current public examination in Pakistan. A thought provoking conversation compelled me to reflect if the blame of students’ incapability of writing a simple writing piece goes only to the teachers, like what and how they teach in the classroom? Or is there any external factor(s), which hinders teaching and learning processes?

What is a common thing among all Pakistani teachers is that they teach their students to pass examinations. This single reason fails the entire education system.  

The National Education Policy (2009) has mentioned curriculum, assessment system, text books, teachers, learning environment and relevance of education to practical life the basic pillars of quality education.

Of these pillars, let’s discuss assessment which is regarded as one of the key pillars of education system. Assessment is the key to educate educationalists about education practices in the local context. However, in current scenario standardised examinations are mainly rooted in summative assessment system and students’ learning is assessed by a single paper pencil test. Ultimately, this kind of assessment restricts teachers from focusing on students’ holistic development.

The critical concerns that often compel the teachers to just go for examination-centered practices ignoring students’ critical thinking, problem solving and knowledge generation skills have never gained policy makers’ attention.

Recently, my grade five niece showed me a paragraph on “My House” which she had written in her homework copy. The paragraph showed her house had six bedrooms, a swimming pool, a backyard orchard etc. Her 10-marla house was hardly a match to the house what the paragraph had described.

I asked her, “Dear, where is your this large, spacious house?”

It only existed on a certain page of a composition guide which she had remarkably crammed.

An ensuing discussion with her made me realised that this flawless paragraph would earn my niece good marks in exam and a wide, big star on her homework copy.

Students groomed on such writing techniques earn good marks in public standard examinations but fail miserably in critical thinking and free writing.

An analysis of the question papers developed in standardised examination demonstrates that the questions were testing rote memorisation of limited content from the textbook.

Logically, the question papers should test candidates’ learning outcomes from the curriculum but, no, it is otherwise. Question papers setting drive the teachers to teach a limited content from the textbooks. Extra aid is obtained from key books which come up with ready to rote learn questions without a second thought.

The candidates with a better capacity to feed their skulls with mindless text can perform well with higher marks. Sadly, those who lack memorisation skills often found in committing suicide and discontinuing further studies.

Recently, matriculation results were declared across the country. I was at a premier college in Islamabad where students had queued up to get admission prospects. I asked a few students about the secret behind their 85 per cent or even more marks. It emerged that guess papers, past year solved papers and the papers of other boards would give them a good idea what questions were to be rote learned.

If students’ future is all on marks, so is of teachers. A better students’ result percentage will yield a higher annual increment to teachers. So, the end result is while preparing students for the standardised examination, teachers overlook the real quintessence of education.

Educationists say the purpose of the ‘test’ is to measure students’ knowledge and skills and making judgements about their performance. Teachers are hardly trained to make tests and construct evaluation process; developing a test paper and constructing test items need professional approaches. Asking the right question in right wording is what every teacher should know, which, a majority of them don’t.

Developing a test paper is a scientific process as it involves systematic steps, such as planning to develop test, generating purpose of the test, defining learning outcomes, generating item pool and developing the table of specification. The developed paper needs to be validated from a pool of experts. Principally, the final paper should be piloted in the field, which public examinations don’t. Once a paper is developed and administered without testing reliability of the paper, how it is possible the paper is developed for the right students? This scientific process exhibits that designing test is not confined to an activity or a task; it is a field of specialisation that a test developer should have both theoretical understanding and a rigorous practice along with content expertise in proposed subject. Paradoxically, our test item developers in the public examinations do not focus on this rigorous process. In the current scenario, those who are masters in any subject and teaching the same subject are recruited and assigned task to develop question paper. This dearth of assessment literacy in our public examination system leads to the development of ineffective, poor and useless papers.

Assessment literacy is needed in the examination system for developing a valid and reliable question paper, which should help students develop higher order thinking skills.

A good test regime may yield a crop with not so high marks on paper but the end result, however, would be far reaching and of course, good one.