Policy Dialogue #8: Theory and Practice in Assessment in Primary Education

Posted by on October 19, 2020  /  3 Comments

Held on October 17, 2020, via Zoom



Assessments in Primary Education  with a focus on  the Grade five Scholarship Examination in Sri Lanka

  • Ms. Sanuja Goonetilleke and Dr. Sujata Gamage, Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL)

Review Panel

  • Professor Angela Little, Professor Emerita at UCL Institute of Education, UK
  • Dr. Longkai Wu, Research Scientist at the National Institute of Education, Singapore (Presentation)
  • Mr. Muthu Sivagnanam, Former Director of Primary Education, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka


  • Dr. Tara de Mel, EFSL


In additional to the review panel, participants included Dr. Lilamani Ginige, former Deputy Director General of the National Institute of Education, Sri Lanka,  Ms. Priyatha Nanayakkara, Director of Education, Mathematics Department, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka and Dr. Esther Care, Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Australia, and representation form the  private sector, and NGO and civil society sector in Sri Lanka.



This was the first of EFSL’s Policy Research Roundtable (PRR) sessions. In the background to a PRR, an education policy researcher works with EFSL to develop a draft policy research paper, which is then reviewed by eminent research and policy professionals. During the PRR itself, the researcher presents a synthesis of the policy research, followed by brief comments provided by the reviewer. Then, the PRR involves all participants in an open discussion on the topic hand. EFSL will be hosting more PRRs in the months to come.


The policy environment for this PRR is the draft report by the 2020 Presidential Task Force on Education, which proposes that the current Grade 5 Scholarship Exam (G5SE) be replaced with a “suitable test for admission into secondary schools. The test should focus on emotional intelligence, general ability/aptitude, and essential learning competencies.”


EFSL’s presentation outlined the theories underlying assessment and evaluation, chiefly from C.W.W. Kannangara’s 1943 outline on education reforms, Sri Lanka’s National Institute of Education Teacher Guides, and reports by OECD and UNESCO.


EFSL compared various primary education systems in Sri Lanka, the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, and Finland, and noted that Sri Lanka tests its students earliest in comparison to other countries. Further, EFSL noted that at present Sri Lanka does not emphasize assessing critical thinking, reasoning, and applicability in skills in students. EFSL also noted the difference between formative assessment (to improve teaching and learning over time) and summative assessment (more definitive, at one point in time).

Using extensive literature, EFSL also noted the shortfalls in current implementation of G5SE. Key among these are an emphasis on rote learning and exam performance at the expense of other types of learning and assessment, negative impact on social-emotional wellbeing of students, negative impact on teachers’ professional development, lack of vacancies for high-performing yet disadvantaged students in secondary schools, the tendency for high performers on the G5SE to already attend well-resourced schools, and the inadequacy of the current bursary award of 500 LKR.


In the draft paper and presentation, EFSL proposed a set of recommendations to address issues of content and equity.

  • Content

#1. Rename G5SE as Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT)

#2. Limit testing to Numeracy, Literacy, and General Intelligence

#3. Gradually bring Mathematics questions up to international standards

#4. Evaluate the efficacy of the school environment (not individual students) for social-emotional learning (SEL) outcomes

  • Equity

#5: Rank all secondary schools against national benchmarks

#6: Ensure sufficient spaces in higher ranked schools for high achievers in SSAT

#7: Give priority to high performing students from low-ranked schools

#8. Provide bursaries to cover relocation costs for all disadvantaged children entitled to relocate

Reviewer Comments

Professor Little posited the question of why a test for secondary school admission is needed at all, and suggested that ‘assessment’ could also investigate or diagnose the day-to-day, more informal activities of teaching and learning that take place in classrooms in addition to more formal examinations.

Dr. Wu agreed that emotional intelligence (EQ) is difficult to ‘assess’ alongside assessing skills in numeracy, language, and general intelligence (IQ). He described Singapore’s current efforts to make assessments less competitive and more demonstrative of each student’s achievement levels.

Mr. Sivagnanam pointed to the example of Finland and its lack of exams. He proposed a system of continuous (formative) assessment for improved teaching and learning and noted how the current examination mindset overshadows Sri Lanka’s primary curriculum.

All reviewers propose specific changes to draft policy research paper.

Open Discussion

Several noted that the high social demand for such a test in Sri Lanka is due to the lack of high-quality schools in the country. While long-term solutions should eliminate the need for such an exam in the future, at the present it is one of the only options for educational mobility for high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The creation of a roadmap towards this goal, the inclusion of participatory approaches in policy design/reform, and the reframing of the exam as more child-friendly, were also discussed.


  1. The policy intent appears to be to provide educational mobility for those deserving it (because we cannot afford to provide it for everyone who desire it – especially when funded by the public, and therefore must have some kind of selection). This means we accept that educational outcomes are a function of the student (“aptitude”) and the school (plus other factors, which we will return to) and therefore placing a child in a better school will result in a better outcome.

    A. If we conduct some assessment (either one-off, or over a period) to see who is more deserving
    1. How do we separate the “aptitude” from the school influence? Especially, some students who are more sensitive to the quality of the school (and who could actually gain most from transferring schools) could actually score less on the assessment as a result

    2. How do we eliminate the impact of other factors – for example, wealth, where having access to wealth that not only buys tutoring that helps children perform better in the assessment, but also means the child can study more due to having a lesser burden to contribute to the domestic economy (either directly producing income like working in the farm, shop, or freeing adults for income generation, like looking after siblings)

    B. From the IPS report, the number of students who benefit from this educational mobility is quite small – because most of the spaces in the “better” schools are already taken by students who enrolled during primary years. If we accept that public funds need to be utilised for those who can best benefit from it, why are the “low achieving” students in the “better” schools given a free pass? The solution for this would be that every child sits an exam to conclude their primary studies (this might be G5, or later if the years in primary education is increased), and are allocated a secondary school on the basis of those results, while striving to offer them a school as close as possible to their place of residence (relocation should be encouraged and subsidised only if there is no suitable school within convenient access)

  2. I do agree with Prof. Angela Little’s question why do we need at all a examination like this? On the other hand people who talk about benefits gain by this examination who enter popular schools turn a blind eye to the fact that due to this examination the whole primary education in this country has lost its main objectives. From the Grade 1 primary teachers are aiming at increasing scholarship in their schools. As a result pupils are burden with homework related to this examination related work. Eg. Asking students to write pages and pages of letters which very has become a burden for parents also. No body is saying writing letters is not necessary. But is it the only objective in primary education. Those who support the present system please check how many text books and exercise books are used to practice letter writing. Because writing letters beautifully is a requirement to score marks in the examination. Recently a Doctor who visits schools to check of children also has pointed out this kind of pressure is harmful to children. He said to me he also has a son and they as parents see the harmful nature of this homework practice. Therefore he says when ever he visits schools he asks for a meeting of parents and teachers to explain the harmful practices of this nature. We have about 300000 thousand pupils in one grade and it comes to about 1.5 million in the whole primary level. Why don’t people do not realize the harm done to Primary Education of these children?
    What I propose is reform the structure of school system and have examination , homework free Elementary Education aiming at Personality Development with Joyful learning for about 8 years for every child. The present school structure could be reorganized for this. After the elementary education schools can have aptitude test and a students profile including the skills interests etc. of students from grade 1 for teachers to fill . And as Prof. Little “‘assessment’ could also investigate or diagnose the day-to-day, more informal activities of teaching and learning that take place in classrooms “.
    That Student Profile and Aptitude Test could guide students as well as parents to select proper stream
    (ie. Academic, Vocational etc.) for next level

  3. Pls. note the following note was further to the discussion in June on the same topic.
    Further to the Zoom Discussion on 12/06/2020

    Grade 5 Scholarship Examination
    It was stated in the discussion that abolishing the exam will affect the social equity. In that regard I like to make few comments as follows.
    1. It will be useful to find out from about o 3 hundred thousand students sit for the exam how many get the opportunity go for a popular school. I believe it would be few thousand. I am not going to describe the stress and the workload those 300000 students undergo due to the exam because it is has been discussed in the media for long time. So how can justify making life miserable of 300000 just for the benefit of few thousand.
    2. The other point some put forward is that poor students get some monetary benefit after passing the exam. As one participant correctly pointed out from a study done by Examination department majority who get the benefit come from economically sound families.
    3. No one will disagree with giving a chance in popular schools for “Brighter Students” ( I will come to this point later) and providing financial benefits to needy students.
    4. I am sure without making the life of 300000 miserable the experts can device methods using new technology to cater to the above mentioned two benefits. For instance Ministry of Education and Examination Department is developing ICT based Student Profile for every student. Let us hope that would be able to record information objectively and capture objectively the various abilities of every child in the system. Such a method could be used to meet the “Social Equity” without upsetting the whole Primary Curriculum.
    5. Why did I say Upsetting the Primary Curriculum. In the Handbook Prepared by NIE for Grade 1 and 2 they have identified 48 Essential Learning Competencies (ELC). For the 1 term in Grade 1 they propose to develop only 3 competencies. Namely (a) Observe and identify the differences (b) Pay attention to cleanliness (c) Using play items students engage in play coordinating the relevant organs such as eyes, hands etc..That is what the curriculum says. But does it happen that way? We know every school is eager to tell the parents how many students in their school passed Grade 5 exam. In order to meet their targets fro the 1st week most schools start training students to write letters. Not only they do that in school but they give the students that as homework also. Sometimes students have to write several pages in one days. Poor kids get punished by parents to complete that at home. No need to say the hectic life working parents have. So it is not surprising them to get impatient when their Grade 1 or 2 small kids fuzz completing home work. These things are not considered by policy makers. This harassments do not end their. It goes until the exam is over in Grade 5. With all these things Primary Curriculum and ELCs go for sixes in schools. Is this what we expect from Primary Education.
    6. Regarding the “Brighter Students” now. Grade 5 is a written exam. Does that mean we can identify Brightness only through writing. What about who have verbal skills who can articulate better. In fact most of the time in our life we speak than writing. What about the other abilities children have like singing, playing instruments, dancing, drawing etc. . We can see that in most of the TV programmes. Howard Gardner talked about ‘Multiple Intelligence’. There may be criticism about that. But the fact that Intelligence is not only a mental ability. If we say only the students who get high marks in Grade 5 is Bright we are insulting to the abilities of thousands and thousands of other children.
    7. On the other hand there are vast number in high academic and administrative positions who did not pass Grade 5 examination. They have said that publicly in media. Does that mean they are not Bright? That means Grade 5 does not have a Predictive Validity.
    8. I agree with Dr. Sujatha when she says if Grade 5 exam is abolished there will be big protests from parents. Yes, under the present School System that will definitely happen.
    9. Therefore whether we like or not we have to consider Restructuring the present School System if we really want to get out of this Grade 5 Exam mess.
    10. For that I have developed an alternative System by establishing 8 year Elementary School which would replace present Primary Level. Thereafter streaming students according to their abilities ( may be based on a method like Student Profile and if necessary Aptitude Test)
    11. There is no need to build new schools, but it will be only a case of restructuring the present system. But it will be extremely important to provide all the necessary human and physical and other resources equally to all the newly named Elementary Schools. (Perhaps WB / ADB would come to our assistance.)
    Please see the attached document which I prepared several years ago on the suggested new School System. Some of this is in operation like “Vocational Stream” ( There was a suggestion to change the word Vocational . Can’t we name Technical Stream 2.)
    As Dr. Sujatha pointed out if a degree is attached to this stream at the end that will attract students. I think already we have such degree programmes for some of the Vacational Subjects. Eg. Textile Technology and Fashion Designing are degree courses in Moratuwa and Open University. Food Technology is a Degree Course in UNIVOTEC)
    The problem is most students and parents are unaware of these openings. So good publicity campaign by the Ministry could be one of the strategy to popularize this New Stream.

    MA in Education (Sussex)
    Retired Director of Education/ Education Consultant

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