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Stress on exams: Pressure to pass prompts revision of evaluation systems

By Yoko Kono


The importance placed on school examinations by teachers, students, parents and communities appears more prevalent in Asia-Pacific countries than western nations.


Media outlets in Asia frequently feature stories about students being stressed before they sit exams.


On the university entrance examination day in South Korea, a newspaper stated that the official workday began an hour late to reduce traffic jams that might delay students. Another article recounted that parents packed a temple in Seoul to ask for divine intervention to aid their children’s academic success.


In India, the soaring popularity of coaching schools to prepare students to score higher university entrance exam grades to enter competitive colleges is frequently reported.


So why are examinations seen as crucial to success in life?


Examinations at the secondary level have become “the chief mechanism for controlling access to the next level of schooling, to the most prestigious schools, to good jobs, to universities, and to greater life opportunities”, stated a newly released UNESCO Bangkok publication on secondary level examinations in Asia, authored by Dr. Peter Hill.


In Indonesia, students sit a standardized examination at the end of the primary, junior high, and senior high school levels, which determines admission to the next level of schooling.


“These [examinations] were very important because one affected the other. If I could not pass the first exam level, I would not be able to enroll in the next level of education. [This would have meant] that I had to take one more year to study in the same grade and it would have been a disgrace for me and my family,” Puspita Dew, an Indonesian language instructor at a university in Yogyakarta, said about her life as a young student.


In the People’s Republic of China, the most significant examination is the gaokao or National Higher Education Entrance Examination, taken by Grade 12 high school students who want to attend university.


Zhou Wenhui, a senior three high school student student in semi-rural Hunan province, studies seven days a week towards this exam. Although she is aware that it will be harder for her to score a higher grade as her urban counterparts due to less equitable access to quality learning, she believes that the exam is an equalizer.


“The exam lets poor kids have the chance to change their life … I want to go to university because I don’t want to stay in a small place. I want to know more about the world,” she said.


These are just a few opinions of young people that face national examination systems at the secondary level in their respective nations.


Although these systems may differ among countries in content, format, or subjects tested, the common thread among many countries in the Asia-Pacific region is that examinations play an imperative role in secondary education as they serve as a gateway for students to the next school level and beyond.


At the same time, there is a growing trend in the Asia-Pacific region of introducing alternative routes to higher education, including school-based assessments and second chance examination opportunities, both of which ultimately reduce examination pressures.


The UNESCO Bangkok publication’s Asia Pacific Secondary Education System Review Series 1: Examination Systems is the first in a series to provide a practice-oriented guidance to education policy planners and managers to review national secondary education systems.


“This booklet aims to clarify different national approaches to examinations and identifies areas to be looked at for countries to improve their systems. Although briefly, it contains information on the existing national examination systems to give general trends in the region, which cannot be found elsewhere,” said UNESCO Bangkok Secondary Education Programme Specialist Miki Nozawa.  Each booklet in the series will focus on an issue of particular interest for countries striving to expand and improve their secondary education systems.


The next two booklets on Access to Secondary Education and Technical and Vocational Education and Training at Secondary Level are due to be published.


Electronic copies on Asia Pacific Secondary Education System Review Series 1: Examination Systems can be downloaded [here] .