Digitising exams the way forward

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Anupam Debashis Roy

Bangladesh’s government is finally considering something that could really stop the question paper leak crisis. The Education Secretary has reportedly hinted at using tablet computers for taking tests. In this method, a question set will be prepared randomly from a question bank 30 minutes before the test.
This is a great idea because it has positive benefits outside of its intended use of limiting question leaks. Firstly, switching to a digital platform would save millions of pieces of paper and decrease the environmental cost of examinations. Using tablets would also reduce many other costs ranging from OMR machine maintenance/operation cost to the cost of ball-pen ink incurred by the students.
If proper randomisation of the question can be done by ensuring the same level of difficulty for each unique combination of questions, cheating through collusion would also become unviable. In that case, the need for invigilation would also be minimised and the exam can operate without disruption. Also, if randomised MCQ questions appear on the device screen, they can be instantaneously graded by the device and the score of the examinations may be made available to the students right after the examination. And if the examination format is further expanded so that the whole examination is MCQ-only, the need for graders will also be eliminated – making the examination process swift, efficient and virtually costless (compared to the current system).
Let’s do a simple calculation to prove this point. In 2017, 3,096,075 students took Bangladesh’s PEC examination, 2,090,277 took the JSC examination, 1,425,900 took the SSC examination and 1,183,686 took the HSC examination. Even if the vocational and madrasa examinations are discounted and an average number of 10 subject tests are taken into consideration, this would mean printing 77,959,380 question papers at the cost of Taka 38,979,690 (assuming a cost of Taka 0.5 per paper printing cost). Add up the costs of additional invigilation, the OMR operation and the public examination bureaucracy over a 5-year period, the total cost would likely exceed the cost of a basic tablet computer that costs around Taka 5,000 in retail. Even if that is not the case, the social benefit that would be created from the decrease in question-paper leakage and collusion-based cheating would justify the minimal public costs that the project may incur.
Therefore, from a pure cost-benefit perspective, the Education Ministry should move towards the digitised public examinations that it is reportedly pondering. Furthermore, it should consider moving to an all-MCQ examination model from the current mixed MCQ/essay structure. Under such a model, public examinations will be so easy to administer that they can be used at every grade level instead of the four terminal grades (5th, 8th, 10th and 12th). The examinations can then be much shorter, less stressful and more useful. Making the examinations lengthy, subjective and high-stakes hardly makes the score data more comprehensive or dependable. Short MCQ-only examinations that ask creatively designed questions can produce more dependable data due to the accountability associated with instant grading across the board.
It is also harder to fudge MCQ test score than for essay questions (which the Government reportedly does to inflate achievement data). The data from the MCQ-only test would give a better picture of which schools are doing better, which are doing worse and which ones need more funding or care than the others. It will also give us a general sense of the standing of the student population in comparison with their expected achievement level and the student will be less likely to get bad essay score for having a bad essay grader (which is not very uncommon). In that vein, the more frequently the examinations can be administered, the better the data would be.
Also, the student can potentially get a certificate for the grade they pass on the digitised public exam even if they have to discontinue their education after a non-terminal grade (grade 5, 8, 10 and 12 in the current system). This should increase the incentive for students to stay in school even in the in-between years of public examination. If development economists like Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Amartya Sen are right, increasing such incentives could lead to a decline in the school dropout rates. Fully digitised examinations can additionally be a harbinger for increased educational access to non-traditional students. In an ideal scenario, the test could be administered year-round by the Union Information and Service Centers (UISCs) and students without access to traditional educational institution (say a street child who has only ever been to an NGO school) can easily take the test and earn a government certificate that they can use to get a job later on.
But cannot leakers just turn hackers and leak the questions digitally in the 30 minutes time window granted by the current proposal? They might. But if the questions are instantly generated at the click of a button when the students start the test, that risk may be averted. What if they hack the whole question bank? It won’t matter. The question bank (that should contain 5,000-10,000 critical/creative questions) might as well be public and the tests might as well be open book. Let the students learn the thousands of answers and they will achieve subject matter mastery anyway. Let the students find the answer in the open book and they will achieve critical reading and research skills. The benefit of in-test cheating in any shape or form should still be minimal because of the time cost associated with cheating in a randomised timed test. Therefore, regardless of the venue of the exam, the exams would still be efficient and productive.
As such, the proposal of digitising at least part of the public examination is certainly a step in the right direction. It is more beneficial than the current system of public examination and if successful, it has tremendous potential for growth in the future. Of course, there are possibilities of corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency creeping into the process like many of its other projects. But if it doesn’t and the idea is implemented correctly, the digitised public examination system may become the flagship project that would vindicate the legacy of the current administration and create new frontiers of educational innovations for administrations to come. (The Daily Star/ANN)