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Publication Date : 07-03-2013
Despite improving results in primary school exams in Bangladesh, high dropout rates and inconclusive methods of assessment remain major concerns
Primary level education in Bangladesh's urban areas and the rest of the country are poles apart. In the cities, parents' ambitions coupled with arduous contests at school ruthlessly burden studies on little children. Children at government primary schools, on the other hand, strive to attain a base-level standard. Despite excellent results in primary school terminal examinations in recent years, constant dropouts from schools and the method of assessment remain major bottlenecks in the system.
A ‘sack’ full of knowledge is what Rafid, a fourth grader, carries all the way to school every day.
Rafid’s back is too frail for his heavy trolley-schoolbag that he and his mother take turns to drag along. Heavy schoolbags today bear witness to the increased competition and onerous study load even at the primary level of education.
Like Rafid, school goers throughout the city are forced to be intensely competitive at both Bengali and English medium schools. Parents are becoming increasingly bent on accomplishing their own unfulfilled ambitions through their children’s academic performance. This places a heavy burden on their small shoulders.
Take Raisa. Her parents have delayed her schooling expecting that a late entry into Class-I will ensure their daughter topping the class in an English medium school. Apart from her preparatory studies at home, Raisa’s companions during this hibernation have been computer games and counting crows on lonesome afternoons on the fifth floor veranda.
“Some parents are just making their children handicapped,” says Naila Zaman Khan, professor and head of Paediatric Neurosciences at Dhaka Shishu Hospital. “Children not participating in co-curricular activities for the sake of studies will have poor life skills. Participating in all sorts of activities helps them learn to develop relationships, have more friends and a social circle,” says Khan.
Dr Abul Ehsan, director of the Institute of Education and Research (IER), thinks that education for primary school goers, aged between six to 11 years, should be entertaining and engaging so that their creativity is fostered. He elaborates, “It is a founding time for their physical, mental, spiritual and aesthetic development.”
Even until a year ago, entrance exams at the best city schools, particularly Bengali medium, used to be battlegrounds where these little warriors had to sweat through gruelling tests. Nasrin Sultana, a home maker and mother of a third grader comments that the Class-I admission tests in Bengali medium schools that her child competed for two years ago, were ‘mini-BCS (Bangladesh Civil Service) exams’. “My son spent six hours per week at one coaching centre, while some of his friends did more than that," she says.
An economist specialising in education, Niaz Asadullah, also a British university teacher, thinks parents have no alternative but to prod their children to be so competitive. “Parents want their children to study at the best schools because it is a one-time investment. You pay very high fees for quality education,” he says.
Failing to rank children through fair competition, most schools had to put an end to admission tests at primary level. Some schools switched to a lottery system, preceded by viva voce, for selecting the ‘best’ candidates. Now the lottery system is regrettably the only entryway to the best schools in town. The other option is to pay high fees at very expensive schools that many cannot afford.
Asadullah also observes that GPA-based assessment under the national curriculum is one of the reasons for which many complications prevail at Bengali medium schools and in higher education. “At present, higher educational institutions are running out of ways to rank almost 50,000 top high school graduates a year. The increasing number of GPA-5 holders at all levels gives the impression of an overall development. But it does not always ensure quality of education and has implications in the long run. The graduates eventually face challenges at the higher level and then in the labour market,” he adds.
Intense competition tends to take away the joy of learning from the little ones, depriving them of even a little respite.
Tarif is a third grader at a government primary school on the fringes of Khulna district. As soon as the bell rings, in the blink of an eye, he is seen meandering in the meadows, flying kites whilst taking relishing bites from ripe fruits. Later he just sneaks out for an untimely midday plunge in a local pond. Sunset drives him home for some routine memorising of lessons. His parents, meanwhile, are satisfied that their child is learning to read, write and count.
In contrast to the city-based primary level schools in Bangladesh, students of the government primary schools across the country have different struggles to face. These schools have long been termed as ‘schools for the poor’. Unlike Rafid’s heavy trolley-bag, a few frayed textbooks are all that the primary school goers carry. It’s no wonder why the timely textbook distribution this year became front page news.
Most students and their parents in rural areas think it is enough to learn basic literacy and numeracy skills, informs primary school headmaster Kowsar Islam from Jessore. Government primary schools were lenient on education prior to the primary terminal examination, introduced in 2009. The examination brought some positive changes as pass rates have gradually attained 97.35 per cent last year with almost one hundred per cent enrolment.
Unlike the previous scholarship programme, terminal examinations offer every child an equal opportunity to compete for the primary school certificate. “Many rural schools have surfaced with good results in the terminal exams for alleviating the previous selection process for scholarship,” Chowdhury adds.
But does the outstanding pass rate in terminal exams and enrolment figures indicate a qualitative development in primary education?
Asked whether the terminal examination results were qualitatively evaluated by any government or non-government body, Rasheda K Chowdhury informed that it is difficult to assess the outcome until at least five years have passed. She adds, “Indeed there is an overall progress. But upon completion of five years’ education, a primary student is supposed to be achieving 50 competencies including reading, writing, numeracy as per the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB). Of this, only 27 cognitive skill-based competencies can be measured.”
“Since we do not have competency-based assessment, we cannot really make sure whether the children are achieving quality education,” she says.
Manzoor Ahmed, a senior adviser at Institute of Educational Development (IED), BRAC University and vice-chair of CAMPE says, “Despite good enrolment, the dropout rate is still very high, between 30-40 per cent. Also, independent assessments and sampling show that the actual competency, reading, writing and basic numeracy skills are not always up to the mark.”
Ahmed also thinks that GPA-based assessment is not the most appropriate way to assess primary school goers. “Most public school students come from humble backgrounds; using GPA-based assessment to label them is educationally not defensible as it may undermine the self-confidence of thosenot doing very well. In other developed countries, children at primary level are also assessed but not labelled in such a way,” he explains.
IER Director Dr Abul Ehsan also thinks that GPA-based competition, apart from poverty, may well be a reason for the constant dropouts from the public primary schools. “The world has adopted innovative ways to assess primary school children. In most countries, small groups of primary school students are categorised as top 5 per cent, 10 per cent in a class rather than the conventional grading system that narrowly assesses a child’s performance,” he says.
GPA-based results also complicate admission at higher levels when too many students acquire similar grades, provided that the best performing higher educational institutions are relatively few in the country. Introducing an all-inclusive aptitude-based assessment tool may resolve this lopsided evaluation. Such a tool should not only reveal how much a child has learnt but also how much s/he has been able to absorb the material taught in class.