Plus - Letters to the editor

GCE A/L - 2011 : Urgent review of results a must

Open letter to Ministers of Education and Higher Education

I have watched with great pain of mind the events and developments that took place after the release of the results of the GCE A/L Examination held in 2011. Many errors and omissions in the results have been reported and a presidential committee was appointed to look into this matter. The report of this committee has now been submitted to the President.

Of the national examinations conducted in Sri Lanka, the GCE A/L examination is considered the most important and most highly competitive examination, which determines the future of our youth. Unlike in most other countries performance at this examination is the only criterion for university admission in Sri Lanka. It also serves as a barrier for admission to foreign universities and other professional/ training institutions. Over the years this examination has maintained high international standards allowing our students to gain admission to prestigious universities all over the world. I am personally aware that our students who have done well at the GCE A/L exam are performing extremely well in US universities.

Results of the GCE A/L examination this time have been openly challenged. It is essential to restore public confidence in this examination as early as possible. The whole procedure of processing marks at the Examination Department should be investigated to understand the root of the problem. Urgent action also should be taken to prevent the recurrence of such errors in the future. It must be stressed at the outset that any attempt to cover up this issue will lead to much greater repercussions and complications affecting a large number of youth in Sri Lanka. It is in this context I have been compelled to write this letter.

I was personally responsible for initiating a dialogue, appointing a committee and implementing the Z-score method to rank students for university admission when I was serving as the Secretary to the Ministry. The Z-score method is much superior to aggregates in ranking students in different streams. There are difficult low scoring subjects and relatively easy high scoring subjects at the GCE A/L exam. Z-score brings the marks of the subjects to the same level so that meaningful rankings can be worked out. It has been proved that the ranking on this basis is more fair and reliable, and it is considered the best and simplest option available to minimize discrepancies that arise due to different subjects, number of subjects, variable marking and different curricula (old syllabus/ new syllabus).

A comprehensive proposal in this regard was forwarded by Professor R.O. Thattil of the University of Peradeniya who served as the consultant to the Ministry and the UGC to implement this scheme during 2000/2001. It was successfully implemented in 2001 with two groups (one group offered 3 subjects and the other group 4 subjects) who sat the GCE A/L exam. Since then this method was in operation smoothly until 2011.

Two issues regarding the results of GCE A/L Examination held in 2011 have been highlighted.

1. Errors in district and island rankings issued by the Department of Examinations
2. Issue raised by experts regarding the formula used to calculate the Z-score
Both these issues are of equal importance and it is necessary to rectify the situation without any further delay.

I have read in the newspapers that errors in rankings are due to wrong entries and processing errors done by the Department of Examinations. It is regrettable to note that independent checks/ audits have not been carried out. Is this the way national examinations are conducted in Sri Lanka? If this is true how can we accept the accuracy of the other entries and Z-scores? All the entries and the processing steps therefore should be rechecked to confirm accuracy of the results.

Secondly, the ministries involved have not used the original consultant to work out the formula to calculate the Z-score this time. Particularly, the officials of the UGC are aware of the history of the introduction of Z-score method and the consultants originally used for this purpose. In spite of this, Professor R.O. Thattil who designed the scheme in 2001 was not included in the committee this time. According to Professor Thattil (Island January 13, 2012) the formula proposed by the new committee is incorrect complicating the A/L results issue still further.

This time the mean and variances of a subject from the old and new syllabi were pooled together to calculate the Z-score. This is a fundamental error made by the expert committee. In this type of situation two student groups should be considered as two separate populations and the Z-score for each group separately calculated. Then the average Z-scores of the three subjects can be used to rank students. This is the method we followed successfully in 2001 for the two groups (3- subjects and 4-subjects).
Unfortunately, the presidential committee appointed to look into this matter has overlooked this important issue of using a wrong formula for the calculation of Z-scores. This has affected all the Z-scores, and the rankings worked out using these erroneous Z-scores are also incorrect. Thus, Z-scores and rankings of all the streams need to be corrected.

I read in the newspapers that a teachers union is contemplating legal action against the Department of Examinations regarding this issue. If this happens, undoubtedly it will be a prolonged battle lasting for months if not years. Such action will lead to a serious situation where the results will be invalidated for some time. Then, the students who sat this examination will not be in a position to gain admission to any higher education institution in Sri Lanka or abroad for a considerable period of time. This is a harmful and serious situation affecting the future of our young generation. If this happens, it will be one of the most serious setbacks in the history of education in Sri Lanka. Therefore, all parties concerned should make a concerted effort to avoid this situation at any cost.

There is another issue which needs the attention of education authorities urgently. During 2000/2001 we initiated action to hold the A/L exam in April instead of August due to strong reasons. We arranged A/L classes to commence in schools immediately after the O/L results are released, and the A/L exam was held for the first time in April 2002. Now it has been changed to August again for the convenience of officials disregarding all the benefits of having the exam in April. Let me explain the benefits of this change.

When the A/L exam is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the students who sat the O/L exam in December of the previous year until September the following year. As a result, these students wait for nearly nine months wasting their valuable time. Similarly after the A/L exam in August the students have to wait till October next year for admission to universities losing about two years in their prime life time. This can be avoided by commencing A/L classes in April this year and conducting the A/L exam in April 2014 and onwards. If this is implemented, those who qualify for admission to universities based on the results of this exam can be admitted to universities in the same year minimizing the waiting period. This effectively saves about two years of their prime life time, which can be profitably used in their higher education.

The following steps are strongly recommended.

1.A complete comprehensive review of all the entries and processing steps of the results of GCE A/L Exam- 2011 should be carried out in the presence of observers / experts nominated by the University Grants Commission.
2. Recalculation of Z-scores should be carried out using the correct formula employed previously in 2001 in consultation with Professor R.O. Thattil,who served as a consultant to the UGC/ Higher Education Ministry in 2001.
3. Release of the corrected results after completing (1) and (2) procedures indicated above.
4. Make necessary arrangements to conduct the GCE A/L examination in April every year with effect from 2014 and streamline the university admission process with a common academic year.

I earnestly request the two Ministers to give serious consideration to the above proposal and implement the same in the best interest of the nation.

Professor R.P. Gunawardane, Indiana State University, USA - (Formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Secretary, Higher Education and IT Development, Chairman, National Education Commission, Senior Professor & Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Peradeniya) (The writer may be contacted by Email:

Expulsion not suspension, should be minimum punishment for raggers

I have practised as a Doctor in Sri Lanka and overseas for the past 49 years and I have always detested and condemned the despicable practice of ragging in our Universities. Sadly, since my university days ragging has become even more dastardly resulting in serious physical and psychological injury to some .
Recently the media reported a heart-rending story of a 21-year-old female student at the Ruhuna University, who fell during ragging and suffered a spinal injury. She was hospitalized and whether she will recover fully is yet to be seen. She is from a poor family and hoped that a university degree would increase her employment prospects and thereby help her family. Her dream may never be realized.

The Ruhuna student who sustained injuries during a ragging session

Two years ago my grand-nephew, a medical student in the Peradeniya Faculty, was assaulted by a few pro-raggers because he joined an anti-ragging group. He suffered a broken nose and facial lacerations which needed surgery. He still has problems with his nose and the scars on his face will be a permanent reminder of his ordeal.

In 1995 a nephew of mine (now an architect) and his batch mates were ragged at the Moratuwa Campus for three months. They were forced to crawl on their knees from the ground floor to the 4th floor almost daily and stay crouched under chairs when there were no lectures around. Raggers used foul language often and on the last day of ragging the victims were barred from urinating for several hours.

Subsequently that nephew's younger brother refused to go to University because he was terrified of ragging and there is no doubt there are others like him missing out on university education for the same reason.

There are many other horror stories of humiliation and hurt, physical and mental. Sadly, after burning the midnight oil for years, students in our country begin University life not with great elation but in fear of their fate at the hands of some sadistic senior rascals during the first few months. Their parents are equally apprehensive and anxious but helpless.

Current anti-ragging measures are obviously inadequate and I make an earnest appeal to the University authorities, Minister S.B. Dissanayake and President Mahinda Rajapaksa to take stern steps anew to deal with the culprits and end ragging for good.

Expulsion and not suspension, should be the minimum punishment. Let's hope that some day every university will be a happy place for every student from day one.

W. Y. Rambukwelle, Kandy

The Song of Ceylon: Lester recalls Wendt’s stories

This has reference to my colleague and friend Richard Boyle’s scholarly essay on Basil Wright’s ‘Song of Ceylon’ and more importantly Wright’s other documentary films.

In his concluding paragraph, he says rather peremptorily that I should divulge what I know of Wright’s great masterpiece. What I do know is more in the nature of gossip rather than serious criticism but it may have some minor interest to those who are acquainted with Wright’s great documentary masterpiece. It is Lionel Wendt who first revealed to me many stories about the making of this film.

For both Wright and Taylor it was their first visit to Ceylon and Wendt took them and showed them what they should see. The posthumous publication of Wendt’s stunning photographs of the island reveals many images that remind one of ‘Song of Ceylon’. He also revealed that it was Grieson, the producer who suggested that Robert Knox be used for the commentary and not W.H. Auden who was commissioned to write. Grieson rejected it on the grounds that it was ‘Too poetic for words” and clashed with Wright’s intensely lyrical images. To record it many BBC voices were auditioned but found to be unsuitable.

Finally Lionel Wendt to his surprise was chosen “for his soft modulated voice” which had no trace of an accent. For the final recording Kandyan drummers were flown to London as the location recording was not good enough. The four part series, in other words the structure of the film was Grieson’s idea. On the title designed for the film, GRIESON alone gets solo credit.

I must emphasize that the above comments are not meant to belittle Wright’s contribution. In the final analysis he directed the film.

‘Song of Ceylon’ remains one of the greatest documentaries in the history of documentary films.

Lester James Peries, Colombo 5

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