Dr Camer Vellani
I have been very fortunate to have been involved in planning academic programs at the Aga Khan University. Through the years, while being engaged in the process at different levels, it became clear to me that education in Pakistan was in a rut and couldn’t come out of that rut; it was basically stuck. The most powerful contributor to this state was the examination system. The certification examinations for school and medical education expected reproduction of textbooks and not understanding of the substance of knowledge. And the textbooks, especially for schools, were not always accurate but that’s what children had to learn and reproduce otherwise they wouldn’t get the marks required for a certificate. Malpractice, cheating and unfair means were employed widely to get the scores – and scores mattered greatly – as if they really conveyed useful information about an individual’s ability, character, performance and civility or anything else. What mattered was the certificate to get a job or admission to higher education – the stakes were very high.
Basically, the role of assessment in planned education and the development of a child’s abilities was overlooked. Planned education, particularly introduced in early childhood, has considerable potential for intellectual development, learning ability, responsible social behaviour, and health. But the question is whether the mode of education actually enables holistic human development and nurtures the growth of many abilities and varied talents. It is pertinent also to question whether narrow range of specific knowledge is sufficient to embark upon the journey of life, and the rationale for such specification.
Besides the curriculum, students learn many other things in the process of schooling, so the way learning occurs really matters. The lever that guides learning and intellectual development is assessment that makes sense in relation to well-reasoned objectives of education.
AKU-EB was established keeping the same assessment philosophy in mind – a philosophy which covers the breadth of learning and allows the freedom to explore and question for which one requires thought and understanding. It allows the stimulus to critical thinking and the opportunity to acquire knowledge through inquiry. It strives to instill conceptual understanding. And to let all this happen, it strongly rejects rote learning and reproduction of just required facts to get scores.
Fact is not knowledge; knowledge consists of information that one understands and can apply. AKU-EB was established to guide the teachers to strive for better understanding of concepts for themselves as well as for their students. It rejected testing for information rammed into minds and encouraged assistance in development of knowledge that could be applied. So the teachers also had to start learning differently along with the students. Over the course of ten years, the Board has provided opportunities for teacher development through custom-designed or need-based workshops.
Zubair Mughal, Principal, IBA Community College, Khairpur mentioned how the Professional Development Workshops have helped transform the classroom environment in his school, “After attending Professional Development Workshops, we have seen a difference in the teaching method of our faculty. Before, teachers would just lecture the class; now they are using better teaching techniques and SLOs (Student Learning Outcomes) including the appropriate use of technology in the classroom which has improved the learning of our students.”
And now through the Middle School Assessment Framework, which has provided the opportunity for a longer lead time to certification, broader education and better understanding of communities and facts can be acquired rationally by both students and teachers.
AKU-EB focused on addressing the above mentioned ills in the teaching, learning and public examination systems through the philosophy of rational assessments. It overhauled the nature of the question papers and introduced space limited, understanding-based questions which solved the problem of rote learned answers with no understanding; the practical examinations which aid application of concepts; the listening exams that help improve the language and comprehension skills. And then participation in other activities and interactions stimulated in schools also have their effect on broadening education, which has been a very important objective of AKU-EB’s mission and assessment philosophy.
As Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Trustee, ETN Schools Network puts it, “the examination board doesn’t just focus on examinations; it actually focuses on the entire learning experience of the student during the entire academic year. It promotes comprehension rather than rote learning. It promotes inquiry rather than regurgitation. It promotes individual thinking and broader and a sounder foundation for a child in terms of understanding concepts.”
On the other hand, alumni are also reaping the rewards of rational learning in line with the international standards especially those who have obtained admissions abroad. For example, one of the many candidates who went to study abroad after graduating with AKU-EB is Rahim Hirani. Rahim is an HSSC graduate from Aga Khan Higher Secondary School, Karachi, currently pursuing the Bachelor’s degree in Science at Hampshire College, USA who sent us a note saying, “Thanks to AKU-EB, I was prepared enough to appear in a series of tough tests required by Hampshire College, and finally won a scholarship of $160,000 for four years to study Science. I also received the special Non Satis Scire (To know is not enough) Scholarship of $10,000 a year in recognition of my academic and extra-curricular achievements. I believe AKU-EB has played a vital role in this accomplishment by preparing me for world class education.”
Since its inception, AKU-EB has set a very strict standard to ensure transparency at all levels. The issues of unfair means and malpractice were dealt with the use of technology. AKU-EB is the first and only Board in Pakistan to introduce an innovative e-Marking facility with 92 custom-built marking stations. This state-of the-art-facility is also the first in South Asia and fourth in the world.
For written responses, e-marking allows no room for bias since a candidate’s response remains completely anonymous, identified only through a bar code. So when you don’t know whose paper you are checking, you won’t be able to impact results through unfair means. Also, each response is scored by 5-6 pairs of eyes and then by a senior examiner who monitors any abnormal trends in marking of each response.
All this was established because we wanted to rebuild the lost trust in the Pakistani examination system. We wanted the students to believe in their own hard work and abilities rather than using unfair means plus transparency to rebuild trust in their ability to achieve the reward that is consistent with what they deserve. And trust builds security which is an important factor in the healthy development of children’s abilities.
Parents of our candidates recognise the benefits of transparency exactly the way we had intended. Mrs Dr Mansoor Bhatti, mother of Khadeja Bhatti, now studying Public Administration at NUST commented, “Pakistan needs people with civic sense, integrity, fairness, compassion and leadership qualities. If only the examination systems across Pakistan are as thoughtful and transparent as AKU-EB’s, the current scenario will automatically begin to change with children exploring and trusting their own capabilities rather than relying on unfair means.”
Then the School Performance Reports that are generated out of these results help the schools to further improve their teaching and student learning outcomes from year to year.
Along with the quality, affordability and contextual considerations of operation, including development of teachers and assessors to guide improvement of education widely in Pakistan, drive AKU-EB in ways that are not possible for the existing international examination board. In addition, preparation and presentation for the international board examinations are very expensive and so available only to the more affluent sectors of society. AKU-EB’s goal is to improve access to quality education across Pakistan, including students with lesser means who deserve equal opportunity to develop their abilities for further learning. The fact that the Board provides quality and rational examinations based on Pakistan’s national curriculum is what sets it apart from other boards in the country.
Today, 150 schools and colleges across the country have adopted AKU-EB’s examination system. Its alumni are known for their understanding of subjects as well as for the soft skills set they bring to the universities such as leadership, communication and critical thinking. They are known to perform well against competitors both nationally and internationally. Its alumni have gone to around 180 institutions of higher education in the country and around 40 universities abroad.
Improvement in examinations and education was the reason for establishment of the Board. And because of that there has been unanticipated additional progress in testing and assessment that has expanded the scope of its expertise further, ranging from conducting Baseline Studies; professional development trainings on testing and assessment; design and construction of test papers; e-marking of candidate scripts, providing statistical analysis and reporting of candidates’ performance to providing consultation on the development of a B.Ed. course on assessment and evaluations. Universities and professional organisations such as the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF), Sindh Education Foundation (SEF), the Institute of Bankers Pakistan (IBP), Institute of Business Administration, Sukkur, and Daanish School System have benefitted from these services.
Then there are assessment reports that serve as a guideline for these institutions and can be utilized to help improve the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms, as well as enhance instructor performance at their workplaces.
As I look back, I am very pleased with the progress AKU-EB has made in the past ten years. The Board’s mainline service of educational assessment has certainly initiated change in the education sector. It was fully expected that the students would be better prepared for higher education; that has certainly happened. Students realize it, alumni have reported it, and higher education institutions where they are studying have also endorsed it.
While sharing his views about the performance of AKU-EB candidates, Dr Kashif Mannan, Course Director, King Edward Medical University (KEMU), Lahore said, “AKU-EB candidates stand out because of their leadership skills, confidence and positive attitude. They excel in all co-curricular activities as well. Their language skills are better than other students in the course. Module 1 of their course is very tough and demanding and because they come from a system that promotes active learning and thinking these students are able to grasp concepts with ease and have been maintaining consistent high grades.”
We expect that AKU-EB will continue to maintain its quality and will grow to enhance its impact widely for the benefit of the society.
Dr Camer Vellani is the Chair of the Aga Khan University’s task force that led to the establishment of the Aga Khan University Examination Board and its assessment philosophy. In this article, he shares what did it take to establish the Board and what did it mean for education sector in Pakistan as the Board celebrates its 10th anniversary. Dr Vellani is currently serving as the Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the Aga Khan University, member of the Board of Directors of AKU-EB as well as the Advisory Committee.