Exam muddle: ‘Question of misreporting, not mistakes’

Top Exam official hits out at allegations of irregularities in exam papers and conduct of exams
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Dhananjani Silva, Pix by Sanka Vidanagame

Throwing down the gauntlet, a top-level examinations official has challenged anyone to show any mistakes in the national question papers set recently.

“I challenge anyone to show me the mistakes in any question paper,” urged Commissioner-General of Examinations, Anura Edirisinghe, explaining that the papers have been set according to what was taught in schools. The syllabi, textbooks and teacher instruction manuals were the basis on which these papers were set and up to now no schoolteacher or university professor has raised any issue, he said, dismissing allegations by people with vested interests such as tuition masters who teach for a fee.

Education Minister Susil Premajayantha, in an interview with the Sunday Times, said that some were quibbling over the use of words. The usage, however, was not wrong – it was just a difference of opinion among different groups of academics.

Commissioner-General of Examinations, Anura Edirisinghe makes a point.

Referring to other issues which various people had highlighted to falsely indicate a muddle in the examinations scheme, Commissioner-General Edirisinghe said that at the Advanced Level examination currently on, three papers had been short one day when being distributed at Thakshila Vidyalaya, Gampaha and at the Grade 5 Scholarship examination 30 papers had been short at a Dadella school in Galle.

Can’t human error occur when “packeting” the papers because all the counting is done manually, he asked, explaining that all examination coordinators and centre supervisors and invigilators have been briefed and issued with instructions manuals on how to act when faced with such a contingency.

At both centres, the supervisors acted quickly and it took only 20 minutes to get the papers at Gampaha and 35 minutes at Galle, from other centres closest to them, because if there is a shortfall at one centre, there should be extras in either one of the centres closest to it.

Not a single candidate has complained, said Mr. Edirisinghe, setting out ‘Operation Examination’ that his department with a very small staff launches with military-like precision every time a national examination comes round.

The department holds four national exams, the Sunday Times understands, and another 350 other exams annually. The national exams handled by the schools’ examinations branch are the Advanced Level (held at 1,830 centres for 242,000 candidates and consisting of 64 subjects, with some having two papers and others even three); the General Information Technology Exam (held for about 150,000 first-year AL students); the Ordinary Level (held at 4,000 centres for 550,000 candidates and consisting of 10 subjects); and the Grade 5 Scholarship exam (at 2,602 centres for 300,000 candidates).

The figures seem mind-boggling with question papers having also to be printed in the three languages of Sinhala, Tamil and English for many subjects

The others handled by the organization and foreign examinations branch for companies, banks, statutory boards, universities, Law College and foreign authorities include promotion, recruitment, efficiency-bar, certificate and competency exams.

The department organizes, conducts, evaluates and releases results, the Commissioner-General said.
The question papers for the ALs are set by a subject-specific panel of university staff comprising professors and associate professors while for the OLs and Scholarship Exam, the panels are drawn from the Colleges of Education, Teacher Training Colleges, the National Institute of Education and the Ministry of Education, he said, underlining the fact that no teacher in the school sector is involved in these panels. “The panels are sworn to secrecy,” he said.

With regard to allegations about a leak in the AL Biology paper, Minister Premajayantha categorically refuted them. “A good teacher can predict what sections are important and what type of questions may come, after studying the past papers. They were just model questions which had been among several other questions.

Citing a leaflet distributed by another tutor, he said that person had given examples of how he had discussed a range of possible questions.

To dispel doubts about “leaks”, Commissioner-General Edirisinghe said when the panels hand in the final manuscripts, they are type-set at the department and proofs sent back to the panels to double-check for errors, only after which printing is done in the highest secrecy and under the tightest of police security. Immediately after printing, the arduous task of packeting begins.

Firstly, the number of question papers needed by each centre is counted and inserted into small packets (colour-coded with blue for Sinhala medium, pink for Tamil medium and white for English medium) in keeping with the serial numbers, and sealed. Then all the small packets are put into a bigger outer cover. This cover would have all the small packets per subject to be distributed per session – either morning or evening. The outer covers are also clearly colour coded depending on the session they are meant for – black for morning and red for evening. Finally, the outer covers for both sessions are enclosed in a special water-proof canvas sack which is security-sealed once again.

The outer cover containing exam papers for evening session marked in red

The coordinating officers at the 300 exam coordinating centres can break open the canvas sack seal only in the presence of three other officers manning the centre. The sealed outer packet is then sent to the exam centres where they can only be opened by the Supervisor in the presence of the assistant supervisor and the examination crew along with two candidates. Here they check whether the packets for all the subjects to be held during that session are there. The smaller packet is opened in the exam hall in the presence of the invigilator and the staff. Immediately after, they count the number of papers and distribute them to the candidates. If there are excess papers they will re-enclose them in the small packet and re-seal within five minutes of distribution. This is to ensure that no paper will go out of the centre.

At every point when the seal is broken, the set of people who are present have to sign. Explaining the tough conditions under which the department provides this “national service”, Mr. Edirisinghe picks one aspect – there are only 35 staff officers who can be called in to manually packet the papers.

If 10 of them declare that their children are sitting for that particular exam, they cannot perform this task and the others have to manage, taking into consideration that females, the older officers and those with family problems too have to be left outas they cannot do night work. With a deadline of 30 days to finish packeting, only about 15 officers are left and they work 24 hours a day, five days at a stretch. Machines are used only for printing but packeting is done manually. This is the reason human error may occur once in a way, he said.

He pinpoints two occasions when there were human errors on the part of two foreign examination bodies. One had been a shortfall of 40 papers for an exam while the other had been the insertion by mistake, of a question paper meant for a future date amidst an earlier set of papers. The department did the needful, preventing the cancellation of the exams and informed the relevant institutions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Edirisinghe said that the department was in the process of putting together an “item” or question bank with pre-tested questions, calibrated to meet teaching methods for the 2011 OLs and ALs.

Some recomended steps

Here are some of the 40-recommendations in the final report of the ‘Committee of Experts for Reviewing the Duties of the Department of Examination of Sri Lanka and to make recommendations for improvement of its quality’ headed by Dr. M. Upali Sedera:

  • to strengthen the school-based assessments and reduce the weightage of written exams
  • to minimize, as much as possible, the subjects for which only one or two candidates sit a national exam
  • to start an academic auditing system after an exam is over
  • to make the answer-script marking schemes available to the schools.
  • to develop a new ‘question bank’
  • to improve the capacity of the existing system


New format for term tests

Leaving aside the national examinations, term-tests set by the provincial education authorities have run into many a storm.

Susil Premajayantha

Education Minister Susil Premajayantha, quoting recommendations by a top-level committee headed by Prof. Lal Perera, a former Dean of the Faculty of Education, says the third-term test question papers, excluding Grade 11, will not be set by the zonal authorities but by committees comprising principals and relevant subject teachers of a group of schools, both big and small.

Funding for the full process of printing and distribution would be granted through ‘quality inputs’ to the schools so that children would not be taxed.

Subject teachers setting the papers would ensure that there would be no errors and confusion.

However, for Grade 11 or OL students, the six core subjects of Sinhala/Tamil, English, Religion, Math, Science and History would be set by the provincial education authorities and put on CDs.

Then the Education Ministry will take over and ministry-NIE teams will check, correct and standardize them and send them back for printing to the provinces.

“This we will undertake to provide quality papers to the Grade 11 students,” the Minister said.

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Exam muddle: ‘Question of misreporting, not mistakes’


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