Teaching & Learning

The Truth Behind the Scores

Exams and Scoring in Indonesian Schools

I have been teaching and training in Indonesia for 10 years now, and I have spent most of those years opposing the system of high reliance on numeric scoring and percentages in schools across the board.

I have written several posts on this general topic before regarding why I don’t endorse these types of scores and suggesting alternatives. Wherever I meet teachers and talk about this, I meet the same two responses: one portion of the teachers simply disagree—they truly believe that standardised testing is the best way of getting clear evidence of a student’s ability—while the other accepts what I have to say in principle but does not see how it can be applied in Indonesia where these scores are a required by government policy.

Both sides of this argument, however, are hiding the same dirty secret.

The Miracle of Retesting

In Indonesia, students must achieve a score of 75% on their exams in order to move up to the next year group. It is exceptionally rare, in my experience, to see any students held back for low scores. This is not because schools have sympathy on their students and let them graduate up with lower scores; no, it is because every student miraculously achieves the required 75%.

How is this possible? Because those students who do not achieve the required score on their first attempt are given another chance. Sounds good so far, you might be thinking. In Indonesia, schools and teachers refer to this system as “remedial”. Remedial classes are a concept I endorse wholeheartedly, and I will get back to this shortly. However, when the word is used by teachers in Indonesian schools, it is not remedial as you and I would recognise.

A more appropriate term for what happens in Indonesian schools would be retest rather than remedial. Students who take the test and fail to achieve the required score the first time are asked to sit the test again in the hopes of a higher score. Very little if any actual remedial work is done with the student, they simply come back, sometimes just a few days later, and hope to do better.

Impossible, you might be thinking. And yet, somehow, it works. How could this be? Well, for starters, the test taken for the second attempt is almost invariably the same test that was taken the first time, not a variation thereon or a rewritten test but the same test entirely. Furthermore, many teachers think it nothing short of their responsibility to indicate what answers the student might have got wrong the first time around, and even where this is not the case, there is plenty of opportunity for the failing student to ask around amongst his or her friends and work out what the correct answers were before sitting down to take the test again.

Everything But Teach

Of course, this solves the problem for the more street-savvy of the failing students. There are some, however, who will still not benefit enough from these implicit opportunities to make the grade on the second attempt. For these students, many teachers will go further still in their endeavours, though without actually reteaching, of course. While I haven’t seen this with my own eyes, I have had teachers tell me that they know of colleagues who have straight up given answer sheets to struggling students, or even sold them to students who are expecting to fail. I have also spoken to numerous teachers who have admitted directly to just changing their students answers and lying when they come to record the scores, also known as rubber-stamping.

Teachers never seem proud of this when they own up to it; they know that it is wrong, that it is cheating. Though, in their shaky defence, teachers that I speak to about this often don’t realise quite how damaging it could be to the students as they move on to more challenging study in the higher classes. Still, if they know it’s cheating, why do they do it? Teachers are held accountable for their students’ scores, and failing students will put themselves on the line. Underneath it all, teachers are afraid to give their students failing scores lest they lose their jobs.

Of course, accountability is important, and we absolutely should hold our teachers responsible for the successes and failures of their students, but not through threats and fear. A system that allows for students to be held back based on scores but heavily punishes teachers whose students are held back is so blatantly corruptible that these stories are really no surprise. So, what are the alternatives?

Failing Students, Failing Teachers

The bottom line to all of this is that students come to school to receive an education. In the vast majority of the world, schools are structured by age, so as students get older, they graduate to higher levels of learning. There are people that dislike this system, and they have good reasons, but that’s not the fight this post is about. As long as the system operates that way, each year students are expected to climb a level and move on to the next stage of learning.

If a student gets to the end of one stage of learning and is, for any reason, not at the level of ability required for the next stage, then of course they should not proceed. Pushing students through school years based solely on age and quotas is detrimental to the students’ progress; if they cannot complete this level, then the next will only be harder, especially if they are lacking the prerequisite learning. As such, it makes sense to have a system in place where students can be held back to repeat the learning that they did not master the first time around.

At the same time, as much as I advocate for the existence of such a system, I do not think that it should result in students actually being held back. That option should merely be a contingent. Kind of like how we have doctors to help us when we’re sick, but we hope to never need them. So the question then is, how do we not hold back failing students?

The way I look at that is that if a student reaches the end of the school year and finds that they are not at the required level to move up, then there is a problem with the teacher. Teachers should not be discovering at the end of the academic year that they have failing students. Struggling students should be identified at the earliest possible point, and the teacher should implement remedial programmes as soon as they are needed. The remedial programme shouldn’t just be revision sessions crammed in between the exam and the retake; it should be ongoing and available at any time a student is found to be struggling and in need of extra support.

My view of the ideal remedial programme is one where the teacher is observant of her teachers and consistently aware of their progress and their struggles, and if a student is seen to have difficulty comprehending a certain topic or material when his classmates mostly move through it quite comfortably, that student will be offered a remedial session to address that particular topic in order that he catch up with the rest of the group.

This way, all students are given the support they need from start to finish in order that they meet the requirements to move up to the next class when the time comes. If it becomes apparent along the way that a student is simply falling behind classmates in most or all areas consistently week after week and is just not likely to be at the necessary level when the end of the year comes, it should be possible to move this student around earlier rather than wasting the rest of the year. However, provided all of the teachers are operating this way, no student should find themselves in such a position in the first place.

An Alternative to Scores

Ultimately, I would like to see these types of scoring system done away with altogether. It is hardly controversial to say anymore that number scores, percentages and letter grades give very little illumination as to the bearer’s actual ability. It’s entirely feasible to imagine two students who both achieve 75% on an exam, project or course, but actually have very different abilities.

In this sense, I am thinking about the allocation of their 75% correct versus the 25% incorrect. I might take a test and fail the first 3 out of 12 units, achieving 75% overall; you might take the same test and fail the last 3 units, also achieving 75%. We have the same scores, but we clearly do not have the same set of abilities.

That’s not to mention the weaknesses of the tests themselves. Virtually any standardised exam that results in these kinds of score is limited in what it can actually test. The kinds of test that students are taking in schools here in Indonesia are textbook formal, standardised exams, based on multiple choice questions, gap fills and true/false statements with a content focus on grammatical structure (for English exams), translation and word definitions. Even a score of 100% on a test like this leaves a lot unaccounted for.

Ideally, these tests would be replaced with assessed tasks, whereby students are actually expected to apply their knowledge and demonstrate practical skills rather than just regurgitate lists of information, facts, figures. In English, my own department, this would be role plays, written reports, discussions and other such interactive/communicative tasks; the key is that any assessment should give a direct one-for-one demonstration of how well the student will perform in the outside world.

These tasks could then be assessed using rubrics and precise descriptors that give a clear explanation of the students strengths and weaknesses in a given area. This is valuable for all stakeholders: it tells the student what areas to practise; it tells the next teacher what things to focus on; it tells potential employers exactly what abilities the candidate can bring to the company. Percentage scores effectively benefit no one other than the school administration, who rely on state/national ranking and the like.

Maintaining Standards without Standardisation

The obvious worry when recommending a shift from standardised testing to something more skills-oriented is that leaving a standardised model means forgoing standards full stop. Teachers and institutions assume that if there is no box to tick for correct or incorrect, then all assessments become entirely subjective and prone to wild variation from one teacher to the next. Of course, this could happen. But with the right foundations put in place, this could very easily be avoided.

If teachers were encouraged to cooperate and collaborate more, something I lamented the lack of in another recent post, then the network amongst teachers would over time establish standards. Teachers could network from outside of their own institutions, across state lines and even internationally with other teachers teaching and assessing the same topics and materials. Teachers could ask one another for suggestions and ideas of how to assess certain topics; they could share their descriptors and assessment systems with one another. Teachers could even subscribe to a peer-review type system, whereby teachers send sample assessments to each other to ensure that they’re coming to similar conclusions.

This could all be maintained without the need for government standardisation, though I would not be opposed to some quality oversight from the government, provided it were conducted in the same spirit. Of course, if the government did get involved, then they could also fund training so that the teachers could better implement the new system. They could publish and socialise particularly successful and effective tasks, assessments and rubrics as public resources for teachers and institutions to access as they needed.

Truly, the only thing that prevents this system from working right now is mindset. I’m not denying that it is radical in the light of how things have always been done. But radical means only different, it does not mean difficult, much less impossible. If teachers, schools, governments and other institutions in this field could just accept openly and honestly that the current model is not ideal and then stop holding on to it for no reason other than convention, I believe that radial changes could be made surprisingly quickly.

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