Examination as an Agent of Educational Reform: Re-iterating some issues of debate

         Ram Ashish Giri, PhD

EIL, Monash University, Melbourne


As the Nepalese politics remains entangled in developing a process of political reform, the academia has embarked upon reforming the education sector in order to meet the changing socio-political and educational aspirations of the people. They are looking into the ways of reforming the curricula, existing teaching force, infrastructure and recourses. However, one area of education which does not receive as much attention is examination, in particular the national examination. Examination as a measure of achieved competencies, developed abilities and acquired educational proficiency plays a crucial role in shaping up the very educational system.  In developing contexts like Nepal, reforming examination may be the cheapest, most viable and most effective way of reforming education. In this article, I take English language education (ELE) as a case study and present an argument for examination as an agent of educational reform. My purpose in this article is to open an argument for discussion to all ELE practitioners, including NELTA Choutari readers.

The debate of reforming education, in particular ELE in Nepal is not new. Several attempts have been made in this respect in the past (for a detailed discussion of this, see Giri 2005) to improve the educational system in order to meet the changing requirements of the school graduates in the globalised world. However, the outcomes of these attempts have been severely scanty and limited. One reason for this could be the fact that no serious attempts have been made to reform the examination system. No significant debate about ameliorating the current examination practices seems to occur in the Nepalese academia.  Despite repeated recommendations from researchers on the SLC examination, for example (see Khaniya 1990, C. Giri 1995 and R. Giri 2005), no resolute initiatives have  been made in order to reform the examination. The constitution of a Study Team in 2005 to study student performances in the SLC may be regarded as an important government initiative in this direction (Mathema and Bista 2005).   There were, however, a number of inconsistencies in the formation as well in the findings/recommendations of the Study Team. Firstly, the study was anything but about student performances. The study report did put in the report a few tables of statistics from the Office of the Controllers of Examinations (OCE). However, it failed to report why certain students performed well while others did not, what were the attributes of their performances and what factors contributed to it.  Secondly, most of the members of the study team had neither the right qualifications nor right training to study student performances. Thirdly, as a result of the first two, some of the findings and recommendations are contradictory and do not fit well for the very context for which the Study Team was created. To cite just a few of the numerous examples of these, the team does recognise the role of examination in educational reform:

The SLC provides both a yardstick for measuring student performance and an instrument for holding schools and teachers accountable for higher performance. It encourages schools to do better, forces teachers to cover course contents, ensures alignment between instruction and curriculum, motivates students to learn more, creates competitive environment between and/or among schools, helps to ensure that all schools maintain the same standards, provides a means for measuring the impact of school reform initiatives, selects students for further education, and provides a basis for certification. In a nutshell, the SLC can potentially be used as a driver of improving the quality of education (Mathema and Bista 2005, p. 70).

However, the report recommends that the examination papers in SLC be limited on Grade 10 curriculum materials only because ‘historically, SLC examinations were limited to Grade 10 syllabus and question papers were set from the texts taught in Grade 10’. The report goes on to elaborate that SLC examinations are ‘meant for testing the learning achievement of children and that there is no particular pedagogical position as to what should be tested through a level-end public examination such as the SLC’ (p.77). There is no justification provided in the report as to how limiting of question papers to Grade 10 helps improve the quality of education. The report fails to acknowledge that there are numerous studies carried out elsewhere (discussed below) showing that limiting the coverage of question in this way usually has adverse effects on the quality of education system. One another instance of their inadequacy of knowledge of the field can be seen in their justification that the scope and coverage of the tests, therefore, depend on the intent which is essentially a political rather than a pedagogical decision (Mathema and Bista 2005, p. 77). Thus, it is not hard to decipher that the solution they recommended to an educational problem is rather a political one.

Through this article, I would like to open a forum to the Chautari readers to express their opinions about the government handling of the educational problems as far as the educational reforms are concerned. Several Master and PhD level research projects may be encouraged to address such issues as:

  1. If and to what extent, limiting the papers to Grade 10 curriculum and text materials has helped address the issue of ‘cheating’ in the examination;
  2. How and to what extent limiting the papers to Grade 10 curriculum and text materials has lessened the burden on the part of students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders;
  3. What effects the limiting the papers to Grade 10 curriculum and text materials has had on the quality of education in general and teaching and learning practices in particular;
  4. If and to what extent, the SLC results reflects the required abilities and proficiencies of the SLC graduates;
  5. If and to what extent the SLC examination should be developed on the prescribed text materials.

Now I will take on the English language education and the SLC test of English with a view to providing a context for the forum I mentioned above. So far as language education in Nepal is concerned, most of the debate centres on the local ethnic languages and mother-tongue education. If there is any sporadic debate on ELE, it is mainly limited to curricular and pedagogic matters and distribution of ELE facilities. The ELE policy and its examination are rarely publicly debated. The non-existence of the debate on ELE at the policy and examination fronts may be because (a) there is reluctance on the part of the people to explicitly talk about politically sensitive issues such as the language issues in the present volatile political climate. Debating the sensitive and somewhat controversial ELE issue is likely to ignite a whole range of socio-political and educational issues for which Nepal is not politically ready, not at the present any way; (b) ELE is not a part of the overall consciousness of the average people. People are unaware of the fact that the lack of a consistent policy regarding the status, role and teaching English is doing more harm than good to the existing linguistic fabrics of Nepal; and finally, (c) the people see an undeniable, incontestable and uncontroversial role of English, and therefore, do not see the relevance of debating about it (Giri 2009). 

There is no doubt that English today has established itself as a language of power but more importantly, it has become the language of all economic and educational success. Whether it is a simple housemaid’s work or tourist guide’s, or whether it is teaching in a private school or establishing own business, English is an indispensable aid without which, as an academics says below, success is only an illusion:

“People who know English are more exposed, more knowledgeable and therefore, more successful in life than those who don’t. Without English, there is no academic or occupational future” (a professor during interview in Giri 2009).

The Context of ELE reform

English is taught throughout Nepal for academic as well as communicative purposes from primary to higher secondary levels in both the private and public school systems through a centralised system of education with a centrally prepared curriculum. However, due to inadequate resources, under-qualified or inappropriately trained teachers, lack of facilities and widespread poverty in the country regions, the outcomes of school English teaching have not been satisfactory. The SLC results between 1981 and 2009 demonstrate that between 69% and 80% of all students who participated in the SLC failed due to students failing in English (Ministry of Education/ Controller of Examinations {MOE/OCE, 2010}, See also Bhattarai 2004).

The new English curriculum revised in the mid 1990s acknowledges the shortcomings of the previous ELE practices which were based on the knowledge approach and recommends that teaching English is about developing language proficiency for higher education, and acquisition of communicative skills. The new curriculum scrapped the old aims and formulated a new set of aims of developing study skills in students and enabling them to communicate with people of any nationality who speak or write English by exposing them to a variety of texts of spoken and written English.  The two new secondary level courses (one each for grade 9 and 10) claim to be of practical nature with ‘functions’ as the core of the curriculum; and grammatical structures and vocabulary as tools to express the functions. However, the pedagogic as well as examination systems are still traditional in their approach and emphasise testing the knowledge of language.  Instructional schemes, for example, continue to rely on the traditional approach to education in which emphasis is laid on accurate memory and memorisation of information; and rote learning is unduly encouraged. Comprehension questions test the skills of locating information in the text and of answering factual questions.  The ‘old’ SLC English test is still in use despite extensive critiques as to its validity, reliability and theoretical adequacy. Clearly, there is a ‘wash-back’ effect from the old test with a number inconsistencies and discrepancies in the test developing process that is impacting on the potential of the new curriculum to actually make a difference to the way English is being taught (Bhattarai 2004; Giri 2005).

What is not recognised is the fact that the very wash-back effects of the SLC may play a potential change agent for the improvement of the entire ELE process, and as a basis for instructional innovation and amelioration of the teacher preparation processes. An appropriate SLC test may in fact create a ‘positive washback effect’ and hence contribute to change the very ELE process.

The School Leaving Certificate Examination

About 400,000 school graduates from public and private schools sit the SLC held in March-April each year. As a gatekeeper for entry into the higher education and employment, it is implemented after a school level qualifying test known as the ‘send-up’ test. The ‘send up’ test is administered by the District Education Offices (DEOs) for the public schools, and clusters of schools for the private schools.

Like any other external or national examinations, the SLC defines common standards of performance required to demonstrate adequate completion of a syllabus. It has a status in the wider community, and is supposed to provide an objective assessment of a student’s performance.

The current SLC is a 3 hour long test in each subject area which like any other standardised test, covers a limited part of the course syllabus, and can, therefore, capture only a small sample of a student’s performance even on the topics tested within the period of time allotted. According to Marsh (1999) a national examination like the SLC is usually biased against students who do not perform well under examination pressures, encourages a concentration of teaching only those aspects of a course which are most readily assessed, and encourages didactic teaching and rote learning (2005). However, the SLC is deeply rooted in Nepali educational tradition and is here to stay at least for the foreseeable future. In the near future, it is proposed to be given at the end of 10+2 (Year 12). It is, therefore, imperative that the problematic areas of the SLC are exposed and solutions to the problems found. 

The High Stake Nature of the SLC and its Stakeholders

The SLC is a high stake examination, and consequently, it is accorded a great importance in the Nepalese society. It plays a crucial role in the lives of most, even all individuals involved in it.  It has become a major landmark in an individual’s life in the Nepalese society. It provides the ladder for one to get on to higher education and also opens up to vista of making his/her own career development. Success in the SLC examination plays a decisive role in getting entrance to a campus, making the choice of subjects in higher education, taking part in scholarship competition and job competition and opting for a particular vocation.

Whether it is societal frontiers, admission to higher education, employment or personal achievement, the SLC results become a basis for decision making carrying a serious consequence on an individual’s life. The SLC results are seen as the final arbiter of student’s ability and dictate the student’s future.  Failure in the SLC is not only a matter of personal shame on the part of students; it also means the loss of an opportunity for a job or admission to higher education.  The SLC graduates with high grades are eligible to apply for a place at prestigious institutes and faculties like Medicine, Engineering, and Science.  Those who pass with an average mark seek admission in less popular disciplines.

The SLC affects the lives of teachers too. Failure to get students through the examination sees claims of incompetence, neglect of duty and sometimes means the loss of a job.  Teachers with a high success rate in the SLC are given certificates of appreciation or monetary benefits.

Parents, who can afford it, make special efforts to get their children through the SLC by sending them to private tuition classes, getting them extra help during the examination period and sending them for private lessons with teachers who are potential examiners. The SLC holds the key to any walk of life in the Nepali society, so parents endeavour to get their children through the examination no matter what. They adopt any means in order to do so, because failure in the SLC means a great loss of family resources and prestige. A public school’s performance is judged in terms of the success rate of its students in the SLC. Schools securing high pass rate are considered to be ‘prestigious’ and are awarded prizes by the Ministry of Education (MOE). Failure to secure good results is regarded as demonstrating inefficiency, poor management, and incompetence.  Such schools are penalised by withdrawing the grants-in-aid.

In the case of private schools, the rate of enrolment depends on the success record in the SLC. A lower pass rate results in students/parents being less likely to enrol or continue in a school. Loss of students means loss in income for school entrepreneurs. School administrators, therefore, are mainly concerned about training the students with exam tactics and equipping them with well-prepared model answers in order to get the maximum pass rate.  Numerous newspaper reports in the past (for example, Spotlight, 2001; Kantipur, 30 May 2001; TKP, various issues) alleged that some well-off schools administrators have exercised power pressure tactics or even provide monetary incentives to examiners or examination administrators to secure a higher pass rate (TKP, various issues). One example of such an irregularity was the scheme of publishing the top-ten achievers of the SLC Board. This was abolished in 2000 because some schools used unethical practices to secure a position in the top-ten list.

To sum up this section, because of the high stake of the SLC, students develop a ‘must pass’ attitude and use whatever means they can to do so as performance in the SLC is critically important to the students and the school. This anxiety is shared by the parents, family and community in an equal degree. For all these reasons, getting success by hook and crook has become a norm or even motivational principle for many.

There is a long-felt need to ameliorate the English language examination in Nepal which is largely old-fashioned, product based and unproductive. The current English language education (ELE) is in a bad shape. It suffers from a lack of a trained teaching force, mismanagement, under-development of basic infrastructure and inadequate resources and above all it lacks an adequate state policy.  The English language test of the SLC is outmoded, poorly conceived and badly developed. It perpetuates the memorisation-based learning. Furthermore, it does not produce credible and consistent results. More importantly, it does not reveal the actual language proficiency of a candidate. The test exerts negative washback effects on teaching and learning of English at the SLC level (see Khaniya 1990, C. Giri 1995, Awasthi 1995, R. Giri 2005).

The new testing scheme should aim at producing a new and improved SLC test, while at the same time modelling a process for developing such a test. More specifically it should investigate how an English language test can be revised for the changing English language teaching (ELT) context of Nepal and according to the best language testing knowledge available. Based on a comprehensive analysis of the ELT context of Nepal, current theories of language testing, and English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) testing practices in some of the developed and developing nations, a language testing adaptation process can then be modelled and a new test package developed.

There is, therefore, a two-fold challenge: firstly, to adapt, on the basis of an analysis of some of the existing models or approaches to ESL/EFL testing, a language testing model which is theoretically justifiable and functionally appropriate for ELE context of Nepal; and secondly to design a process to use the testing scheme as a basis for educational change.

Role of the SLC English test in Reforming Existing ELE Practices

The role that examination plays in educational reform has led to the ‘examination-improvement approach’ to educational reform (Kellaghan 2000; 1992:102). According to this approach, examination plays a major role in raising educational standards and provides justifications to bring about educational reform (Noah and Eckstein 1992b). It also influences educational processes such as setting up learning goals, determining the teaching syllabus, selecting course materials and organising classroom processes (Taylor 2004).

In a country like Nepal where education is constrained by severe resource limitations, an examination can be a low cost means to improvement. Emphasising the importance of examination in an under-developed country, Heyneman and Ransom (1992) write:

Especially in the context of scarce resources with declining educational standards and the ever increasing demands for better qualified manpower, education officials are looking for low-cost ways to improve their education system…examination can be powerful, low cost means of influencing the quality of what teachers teach and what students learn in school (Heyneman and Ransom 1992:109).

So, where should reform commence? Davies (1985) suggests that examination is the most sensitive, most controllable and most certain change-producing factor in the total educational innovation process. So, if one has to choose an agent of educational change, to begin with, one should always choose examination first because ‘creative and innovative testing … successfully attracts to a syllabus change or a new syllabus’ (Davies 1985:8). I illustrate this point further with a few examples.

Davies (1985), reporting a Malaysian case of ELT reform, describes the problem it can create when examination is not given its due consideration. The Malaysian CDC introduced a new communicative syllabus into the secondary education aimed at developing in school graduates the ability to communicate in English. The lack of coordination between the CDC and the examination syndicate, a separate government agency with responsibility to conduct national examinations, led the examination to be incongruent with the syllabus resulting in a fiasco. The main reason for this disaster was, as Davies pointed out, the mismatch between the syllabus goals and the examination.

After an evaluation of the situation, a further reform package was introduced in Malaysia in the mid 1990s which considered examination as one of the primary components of the reform process, and because of this consideration, the ELT practice made tremendous progress towards the desired goals (Ahmed 1997).

The Alderson Report (1986) on the National Certificate of English of Sri Lanka provides another example of how a national examination can exert a positive effect on classroom practices. The national examination in Sri Lanka was changed along with other sister elements such as the course objectives, text materials and teaching methods. All support materials such as teacher’s guide, test materials, learning materials were prepared on the basis of the skills, sub-skills and activities as specified in the test specifications. The underlying principle of this practice was, as Alderson indicates in his report, classroom practices developed the language skills and abilities, which the course objectives targeted, and which were assessed in the examination. Alderson further points out that tests had a strong impact on teaching and learning. Thus, whether the effect of a test is negative or positive depends on the ‘nature, ingredients and use’ of the test (Alderson 1986:104).

Lee (2000), who studied the effect of testing on freshmen in Canada, found that testing method results in a significant change in the students’ performance in the target language.

The closest example, however, comes from the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. Essay writing, despite being a part of the school curriculum for so long, had not been taught simply because it was not tested in the national examination. However, with its inclusion in the Common Entrance Examination (CEE), the national examination in Trinidad and Tobago, the change in the school instructional practice was sudden, immediate and direct. As London (1997) writes:

Government policy to include essay writing in the Common Entrance Examination in Trinidad and Tobago has changed the content of teaching. How to write an essay is now deliberately taught, and both teachers and government officials believe that the change in the test represented an improvement in the primary school curriculum (London, 1997:144).

London further argues that the reform in the CEE, a high-stake examination in Trinidad and Tobago, benefited the country’s education system in several ways. Firstly, the reform impacted on the instructional practices. Essay writing, previously marginalized, surged into prominence as soon as it was included in the national test. Secondly, the reform enhanced school education. Signs of students using language creatively began to appear. Thirdly, the reform boosted the credibility of the examination. The reform was viewed as a refinement and modernisation of the traditional examination. Fourthly, the reform also raised public awareness about the national examination, which served as a basis to secure popular support for the intended curriculum reform. The most important gain of the reform, however, was the change in the teachers and the classroom practices where teachers, as the most direct agents, designed, planned and implemented the instructional programmes and evaluated student progress.

Kellaghan (1992) expresses a similar view:

If the quality of examination is changed, then because of high stakes associated with examination in terms of student opportunities and teacher accountability, the educational experience of students will also change (Kellaghan 1992:102)

Khaniya (1990), who researched the washback effects of the SLC, also found that:

if the people responsible for the design of the exam can make explicit what exactly the students are expected to have achieved and if the ingredients [of the examination] are in accordance with purpose of the whole teaching programmes, the teachers and students can work towards achieving that (Khaniya 1990:327)

In summary, examination reform may facilitate more general reform in education. Change in education can effectively be implemented through examination. However, change in other elements of the educational process does not necessarily change the examination process. A good examination does not only monitor learning, but, as Heyneman and Ransom (1992) observe below, it also provides directions for reforms:

A well designed examination system can monitor and measure achievement and occasionally aptitude, provide performance feedback to individuals, districts, schools and students, inform education officials about the overall strengths and weaknesses of their educational system and suggests directions for change and improvement (Heyneman and Ransom 1992:108).


The article documents a number of studies, which focus on the role of a national examination, and demonstrate to what extent and in what way a test can become a basis for improving instructional practices. As I indicated earlier, examination is a powerful instrument and strong catalyst for change. In the process model of educational reform, the content is relatively less important than the process and the purpose. The goals of instruction in this model are derived from current theories of the discipline. However tests and examinations shape the nature and ingredients of goals, content and process of instruction. In turn, the test or examination is shaped by the above factors in a dialectical process. The effect of a test on modes of instruction is, thus, inevitable. How it affects the instruction, however, depends on its nature, and the skills and levels of training of teachers.

The article also reports on the advantage of using a high stake, national examination as a change agent, and suggests that the SLC could be used as a basis for instructional amelioration in Nepal.

Clearly, the new SLC test has potential to reform and improve ELE in Nepal. It specifies language skills and abilities to be tested, outlines the procedures for testing them, and reflects a required level of proficiency.  In order to meet the requirements of the test, the teachers would be expected to change their teaching strategies in ways which would improve English language instruction.

In Nepal where education is constrained by severe resource limitations, examination can be a low cost means to improvement. As Heyneman and Ransom (1992) writes:

Especially in the context of scarce resources with declining educational standards and the ever increasing demands for better qualified manpower, education officials are looking for low-cost ways to improve their education system…examination can be powerful, low cost means of influencing the quality of what teachers teach and what students learn in school (Heyneman and Ransom 1992:109).

[If you would like to contribute to the discussion by posting your opinion, please click Leave a Comment and write your comments in the box that appears]


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1 thought on “Examination as an Agent of Educational Reform: Re-iterating some issues of debate

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post/article because of the amount and balance of information the author provides on the subject of examination and education. I would like to read more from other experts of the subject especially on the issue that Dr. Giri has invited comments: “I would like to open a forum to the Chautari readers to express their opinions about the government handling of the educational problems as far as the educational reforms are concerned” (para 5). As someone who happened to be teaching in high school when the new SLC English course was implemented in the mid and late 1990s, I remember that the new SLC English curriculum felt somewhat better than the old one mainly because of the balance of different language skills. But it was harder to implement that course than the older one in terms of exams/testing, which was partly due to the lack of training and resources. Also, the new course did not seem to make a lot of sense to many teachers because it did not focus on content an instead on functions and structures of language. Many teachers found the course content dumbed down because they did not understand the underlying educational/ELT theory–which brings me to one more point that caught my attention in Dr. Giri’s article: “the SLC is deeply rooted in Nepali educational tradition and is here to stay at least for the foreseeable future.” I have talked about the relationship between socio-political structure and epistemological worldview in a society in my post, and I think that curricular reform in general and improvement in examination as a teaching tool must be accompanied by intellectual training of teachers in order to change or shape their ideas about what eduction is or should be. Unless teachers (as well as curriculum developers and test designers) understand the positive place of tests within a clear vision about education, they will not recognize what harms tests can do to students nor identify the benefits of using tests productively. Thanks, Dr. Giri, for a highly informative and thought-provoking post. I look forward to reading thoughts and comments from other scholars.

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