Luthfi T Dzulfikar, Jakarta – In December last year, Indonesia's Minister of Education Nadiem Makarim announced sweeping changes to the education sector through four priority reforms. One of them is the abolition of the country's annual national exams.
The exams will be replaced by what the minister dubs a "minimum competency assessment and character survey". Inspired by concepts used in the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA), it aims to measure students' numeracy and literacy levels at grade four, eight, and eleven.
Set as an important factor determining students' graduation, the national exams have been notorious for causing high levels of anxiety in students, parents and teachers.
The exams have also failed to contribute to improvements in the quality of school education.
A 2018 study by think tank SMERU looked at education policies in 13 regencies and cities across Indonesia. It found no meaningful correlation between the 2017 national exam results and the adoption of policies aimed at improving teacher skills.
In 2019, the ministry confirmed 126 cases of cheating nationwide – a 59 per cent increase from the previous year.
Studies have also shown how the exams have caused "measurement-driven teaching", where teachers focus mostly on items being tested in upcoming exams.
Scholars argue moving away from a high-stakes graduation exam to an evaluative assessment can help focus Indonesia's education towards improvements in classroom teaching and learning.
Focus on process not results
Goldy Fariz Dharmawan, a researcher at SMERU said Minister Nadiem's focus towards numeracy and literacy made sense.
"The test items would probably have to be based on either literacy or numeracy as students' core competencies, but this could be designed to cover a variety of subjects including the social sciences," he said.
He suggested the test could, for instance, use questions with economic themes or give problems aimed at testing financial literacy.
The PISA tests – which are centred on mathematics, science and reading – were criticised in 2014 by a coalition of more than 2,000 academics from 40 countries. They say the tests can "dangerously narrow our collective imagination regarding what education includes and ought to be about".
Goldy was also concerned assessments like these only focus on the results of students' learning and not on things that happen inside the classroom, which he considers the true "blackbox" of education.
He called for the new assessment to not just be conducted in one or two days. Instead, it should be held across a slightly longer period of time to accommodate field observations to understand the teaching-learning process in schools.
"The assessment should be a complete package which includes a numeracy-literacy evaluation, classroom observations, and also Minister Nadiem's proposed 'character survey' if required," he said.
He suggested classroom observations be conducted on a sample of schools that represent every province should budget limitations become an issue.
"The two assessments can then be analysed together to provide a complete picture of how students are really learning across Indonesia."
Ensuring schools really improve
Edi Subkhan, who teaches education technology at Universitas Negeri Semarang, argued the Ministry of Education and Culture must ensure the assessment results will be effectively used to improve the quality of schools.
"Those that should have played a big role in acting upon assessment results include school leaders, regional education agencies (dinas pendidikan), and forums such as the Teacher's Work Group (KKG). However, their efforts don't seem to have been very promising," Edi said.
"To help them think of better solutions, we can involve research agencies such as SMERU, the Centre for Education and Policy Studies (PSPK), or even research centres within teacher education institutions (LPTK)."
Goldy agreed with Edi. He said the government could deploy research teams and education analysts to assist regional actors in identifying local problems. They could then draw from the assessment results to solve them.
However, he argued different local conditions must be taken into account.
"Our provinces have varying capacities, different dominant actors, and distinct education cultures. Yogyakarta for instance, has their own team of analysts. Other provinces aren't so well-equipped," he said.
He said it was important for the government to understand the needs of each region so it can deploy help accordingly.
Avoiding another 'rat race'
Although the proposed assessment indicates a shift from the high-stakes exam students are used to, Edi warned of the possibility of it causing another rat race.
"If the government falls into the trap of making the proposed assessment all about rankings, schools and regional governments will be pressured to do everything they can to achieve the highest scores. This defeats the purpose of an evaluative assessment," he argued.
"It would just be another national exam but with a different skin."
A study from the University of Oslo, Norway took note of how PISA caused its participating member nations to be obsessed with policies designed to increase their test scores.
The researchers said it has ended up "killing the joy of learning and led to the detriment of basic values that schools should strive for".
To avoid this, Edi suggested the government prepare "policy packages" aimed at improving schools that are behind in the assessment results, and communicate them effectively to education units nationwide.
"These policy plans must be formulated since the beginning so that schools are assured that attaining unfavourable but honest results will actually help them," he said.
"This was another missing piece of our current national exams. There was no certainty." (CNA/el)
[Luthfi T Dzulfikar is an associate editor of The Conversation Indonesia. This article first appeared on The Conversation.]