The Role of Examinations and the #KannangaraReport

The Committee was clearly concerned about the “domination of school curricula by examinations” (what we now call “Teaching to the Test”).

They found the following aspects of English education praise-worthy:

“by far the greater part of the school education of a student has no reference whatever to examinations.”

“Not until the student reaches the age of fifteen does he begin to think about examination. Even then the schools insist that their task is to educate, not to prepare for examinations.”

Followed by (in reference to the Higher Certificate examination)

“The student is expected to take these public examinations in his stride. The school is pleased if he passes, but it is even more pleased if he is educated.”

And contrasted the position in Ceylon as follows:

“It is no exaggeration to say that in the secondary schools the student hops from one examination to another, and that his curriculum is almost entirely determined by the next examination. Teachers think that it is their business to get their students through examinations, and inevitably adopt a cramming technique. The students themselves “prepare” perpetually instead of for a short time before a single examination. Their parents frequently provide private coaches whose whole justification is that they will get their pupils through examinations. Coaching establishments, which do not pretend to educate all, flourish.”

“That the results are not worse than they are is due to the eternal resilience of youth, the resistance of the elastic mind to the worst that the educational system can do to it. Nevertheless, they are clearly and undoubtedly bad. Many students end their scholastic career with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers. They have little power of applying their knowledge to practical problems. Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited. Brilliant students are undoubtedly produced, but the quality of the general average and the general average is a better test of an educational system than the quality of the cream-is not high enough. It is urgent that the system be reformed”

They acknowledge that school attainment tests were only an external requirement

The educational system as such does not need attainment tests. If the school does its work properly, the standard or form which the student reaches is sufficiently indicative of his educational level. In many countries, in fact, there are no attainment tests below the university stage. Nevertheless, the economic system has become accustomed to them, and employers, including the State itself, require that entrants to the higher ranks of employment shall be limited to persons, who have reached standards of attainment measured by public examinations. We presume that this demand must be met, though we again emphasize that educationally public examinations are unnecessary.

But even then had the provision:

These examinations will be useless if they become mere tests of memory and promote cramming. Therefore, examiners should be on their guard to set a sufficient number of questions involving the application of knowledge to new situations.

They had proposed several aptitude tests which they contrasted from attainment tests.

With regards to the demands of higher education
While they accepted that university entrance required a competitive examination (because space was limited and “they should not waste their funds and the time of students by admitting to its courses those who are unfitted for them”) they said

On this point we need only say that it must be differentiating test or fitness test, and not an attainment test. Its purpose must be only to weed out the unfit, not to provide the summit of school education. It must be adapted to the school system with due regard to the needs of the University. It must not dominate the school curriculum even in the final two years of school education.

But they considered it impractical to conduct two examinations around the same time (school attainment examination and university entrance examination) and therefore proposed to

establish a Higher School Certificate examination which can be operated by a Joint Board on which the University is represented. The syllabus should be framed to meet the needs of schools, but the detailed results of candidates who seek admission to the University should be available to the Board of Admission of the University. The fitness of these candidates could then be scrutinized by the Board (and, if the University thought fit, additional papers might be set or special subject groupings prescribed for University entrance) and their admission decided on the basis of their performance.

At the time of these recommendations, we had only one university with several campuses, whereas we now have several universities, both public and private - and it will not be possible to create one examination that fulfils all their needs on top of being an attainment test for school.

While we favour removing examinations altogether that is not an immediately viable proposition; and therefore we would propose that

  1. Each university conducts their own entrance examinations which can be finely tuned to assess the knowledge and aptitude for that particular course (or courses) of study

  2. Students must have passed relevant subjects in their A/Levels but the grade is immaterial; but they can be allowed to sit for the entrance examinations while awaiting results

  3. Similar programs of studies (e.g. Engineering) could conduct joint examinations, at least within the state system - so a potential undergraduate would not need to sit separate exams for each university.