Proposals to make Sri Lanka’s National Examinations more relevant

Posted by Coordinator on July 13, 2023  /  3 Comments

[Extracted from the report “A Strategic Plan for the Department of Examination” Prepared by Committee of Experts for Reforming the Department of Examination appointed by the Minister for Education dated December 2017.]

The Department of Examination is perhaps the government department with the most impact on society in Sri Lanka. Families organize their lives around the schedules of the three national examinations. Success at these examinations is seen as the major avenue of social mobility, but the exam-centered nature of the education system is also widely seen as the root cause of problems of education in Sri Lanka. This observation is reiterated in all three key reports on the examination system and/or general education published recently (MoE, 2009; NEC, 2014 and NEC, 2016). For example:

“G.C.E O/L and A/L curricula are inconsistent with goals and objectives of general education and have a heavy exam-orientation with public examinations receiving too much attention from students, parents and schools; School curricula and examinations continue on a content heavy and stereotyped cognitive learning model ignoring the 21st century framework for education (MoE, 2009).”

Statistics reveal negative effects of this learning environment. Although Sri Lanka can be proud of high enrolments rates in Primary school attendance rates, only 57% of a youth cohort at any time used to be considered fit for further education as judged by passes and credits required at the GCE O/L which they sit at the of Year 11.

The recommendations by the NEC  to make the education less exam centric include – (1) A reduced  number of subjects to be taken at national examinations (2) School-based assessments that capture the full development of a child and are complementary to national tests and (3) Student achievements reported at levels reflecting minimum competency and higher-order competency so that the examination is meaningful to students at different levels of competency (NEC, ).

Ministry of Education has already begun implementing some of these solutions and more through its 13-years of education policy. The reforms include the introduction of vocational courses for students completing year 11, increasing the choices available to students going onto Years 12 and 13. Going further, the present committee proposes four additional recommendations based on a holistic education framework (Figure 1). Such a framework is expected prepare students better for the increased variety of choices in years 12 and 13.

Currently, students are evaluated only the basis of their success at written examinations. After the Year-5 scholarship examination, the only other evaluation received by students is the GCE (O/L) examination taken at the end of Year-11. Both these examination are paper and pencil tests. Such an examination is neither fair nor accurate because they capture only one facet of student learning.  We propose the awarding of a certificate  for each of the four critical stages of education –i.e. Primary (Years 1-5), Junior Secondary (Years 6-9), Senior Secondary I (Years 10-11) and Senior Secondary II (Years 12-13), with each certificate containing four types of evaluations.

As summarized in Figure 1, of the four proposed evaluations, two are at national level and other two school-based.

Figure 1. A Holistic Framework for Assessing Student Learning For recognizing educational achievement at the end of each of the four stages of education

Stage National Level School-based Certificate Issued (1+2+3+4) Average Age at Completion[1]

Common General Test (CGT)[2]


Subject Tests[3]


Subject Tests


Assessment of Student Portfolios[4]


(Years 1-5)

Yes No Yes[5] Yes Primary School Certificate 10 Years

06 Months

Junior Secondary

Years 6-9

Yes No Yes[6] Yes Junior Secondary School Certificate 14 Years

06 Months

Senior Secondary

Years 10-11

Yes GCE (O/L)[7] Yes[8] Yes Senior Secondary  School Certificate 16 Years

06 Months

Advanced  Secondary[9]

Years 12-13

Yes GCE (A/L)[10] Yes[11] Yes Advanced Secondary School Certificate 18 Years

06 Months


The national level assessments would include a Common General Test and Subject Tests for a limited set of subjects. School-based assessments include Subjects Tests and Assessment of Student portfolios. All four types of assessments exist already in one or more stages of education. What we propose here is a framework which is consistent across all four stages of education. Recommendations #9 to #13 detail the use of these tests and assessment across all four stages of education as given in the framework.

Recommendation No. 09 :  Common General  Test (CGT) at the end of the four main stages.

The National Education Institute has proposed to further develop the Common General Test which was introduced for the G.C.E. (advanced Level) students in 2000. The proposal moves that the current paper should consist of an essay and questions to test the mother tongue. Secondly, all papers in general should consist of a first part that tests the minimum competencies and a second part that tests higher cognitive abilities (NEC 2016).[12]

We, in this report, attempt to  move further from that proposal and propose that a common general test so developed should be introduced at the end of the four main stages; grade 5  grade 9, grade 11 and grade 13. The objective of the Common General Test is to make it compulsory for schools to provide the minimum competencies to all students who pass through each main stage.

As a secondary outcome of one such Common General Test, students who demonstrate better performance at the higher competency level can be selected and scholarships granted at the end of each stage. Such a move will relieve the small children from the pressure exerted on them by the parents and the society who consider the Grade 5 scholarship examination as the one and only critical point in life.

It is our belief that the introduction of a Common General Test at the end of grades 5,9,  11 and 13 will give the  schools the required information to take the children along the thirteen years of school education. Then, that test will become the mechanism that will assess whether the schools play  their basic role towards allowing the children to move up in learning by proidng them with the minimum competencies.

A Common General Test which the students have to face at the end of each main stage is suggested in column C as the first of the four components of education  in table 1.

Recommendation No. 10:  Common  General Test at the end of grade 5 to be used for granting scholarships.

Grade  5 scholarship examination, G.C.E. (Ordinary Level) examination and G.C.E. (advanced Level)  Examination are the three instances of testing the knowledge of subjects through national examinations. Out of these three examinations, the scholarship examination is set in such  a way that it has a first paper that comes in the form of an I.Q.  test and a second paper that tests the knowledge of subjects taught. Our proposal is that, question that tests the knowledge of subjects except the  mother tongue should be removed from that examination and testing the knowledge of subjects should be limited to school based assessments with common General Test proposed  for grade five being considered as a scholarship examination.

Primary curriculum expects the children to gain knowledge through explorations done with pleasure. However, the portion relating to subject knowledge of the present scholarhship examination has become a  heap of facts to be remembered.

For example, through an essay titled, ‘trees around us ‘the child is expected to talk about any given plant. A scholarship examination guide book released recently with past question papers from 2000 – 2016 had questions of over 100 species of plants; the shape of their branches, flowers and about their propagation. (See annexure 6 for more information)

Preparing for the scholarship examination means preparing for the fathomless` unseen’ syllabus. This is a tragedy. In order to change this tragic system we propose to remove the part of testing the subject knowledge from the scholarship examination and restricting it to school based assessment and evaluations.

However, to prevent such school based assessments  from becoming yet another competitive evaluation , we propose that only whether the children have completed their school based assessments or not ? Should be checked in order to make it an additional qualifications for the students with better performance at the Common General Test to be entitled for scholarships.

The scholarship examination which evolved as an  I.Q test became an examination that tested knowledge on the premise that  teachers might evade subject knowledge. We believe that by making the completion of such school based assessments a requirement not only for the scholarship examination but also for the primary examination,  a solution for the above issue can be found.

Further, the circular 23/2017 issued by the Ministry of Education provides instructions on the implementation of the school based assessment system from 2017 onwards. It has been supplemented by a form to record the marks of the school based assessments. Arrangements have already been made to recruit supervisors to monitor the school based assessment system.

At the junior secondary level subject knowledge is tested only on school, zonal or provincial level. Discussions are underway to bring down the number  of subjects the G.C.E. (Ordinary  Level) students have to sit  at the national  level examinations and fill the void at the school level.

A vocational curriculum that is tested at the school level for the G.C.E. (Advanced  Level)  students is  set to be introduced. It is recommended that minimum competency levels and higher competency levels of every paper be tested.

In this context, our proposal of mitigating the scholarship examination to a Common General Test and testing the subject knowledge at school level is consistent with the current policies. Therefore we recommend that the Common General test conducted at the end of primary stage is a suitable alternative for the scholarship examination.

Recommendation No. 11 –  Student profiles to evaluate additional common competencies.

The National Education Commission report of 1992 introduced for the first time the National Education Objectives (Annexure 07) and a set of common competencies (annexure 01) to be imparted to children to reach those competencies.

These objectives and the related competencies, updated in 2003 are found on the opening pages of   ‘all Teacher’s Guides even today.  These competencies which are over 50 in number have been categorised under main competency categories of Communication.  Personality   development, Environment, World of work, Religion and values, sports and leisure and learning to learn.  However, even today, a child who leaves school after 13 years or less gets the results of  an examination conducted to test the knowledge of subjects.

As a remedy to this, we propose the use of student profiles to test such competencies including Personality Development. The National Education Commission has recommended that student profiles should be used to demonstrate the competencies of  Health and physical education and the second language  (NEC 2016, page 28)

Through the identification of   these common competencies and giving them recognition will enable students to gain a holistic education which is the accepted method in the world. The Technical and vocational syllabus suggested by the government for students of grade 12 and 13 will prepare the students to face life with confidence.

Recommendation No. 12 –  A new method of recording students results and school assessments.

In countries like Singapore, the education authorities record the results of the G.C.E. (Ordinary level) examination as a percentage of students  who have passed one or three subjects. But in our country passing six subjects with mathematics and mother tongue is defined as passing the G.C.E. (Ordinary level) examination. It is pertinent to find out how the government defines the passing of the G.C.E. (Ordinary Level) examination in the context of implementing the policy of 13 years of school education.

According to the criteria at present, there is a massive competition among schools to show the best  results from the three national examinations. We hardly pay attention to the fact whether the children who have passed the examinations are ready to face life. The reason of that is the absence of absolute measurements at present. The Common General test which is the first test of the education performance which we propose as an absolute measurement, will be very important. The onus is one every school to coach 100% of its  children to reach the minimum level of competency or beyond. This criterion will become a new methodology in school based assessments.

The  primary, junior, secondary, senior secondary, or Higher Secondary certificate (table 1, column G) which we propose to award at the conclusion of each main stage will not only record  the results of students but also will become a new methodology of school based assessments.

In this context it is the responsibility of every school to award a certificate to each child that demonstrates with evidence  the competencies relating to personality and citizen training in addition to subject competencies. We introduce a format for such a certificate through annexure No. 10.

[1] Currently, age at entry is 5+.

[2] Should include pass/fail test in oral English and oral second languages, introduced gradually. Oral English/Second language immersion with fluent English speakers as facilitators should be available for all schools beginning with primary schools attended by disadvantaged children. Ideas for implementation should be solicited from teachers and parents, through zonal offices.

[3] No national level testing of subject knowledge for Year -5 students from  2018 onwards.

[4] Assessment of child’s aptitude in basic competencies as defined by  NEC and MoE (See  Appendix 8, Appendix 9 and Appendix 10). See also trial in Ampara Education Zone (Gamage, 2010).

[5] School based assessments in Religion, Language, Math and Environment studies; verified by NIE for scholarship finalists.

[6] Current set of subjects include: SIX COMPULSORY SUBJECTS:  Religion and Value Education, First Language, Math, Science, English and Civics and Social Studies; GROUP I: වාණිජ විද්‍යාව (#60), භූගෝලය (#61), ප්‍රජාචාරය (#62), ව්‍යවාසකත්වය (#63),  දෙවන බස (#64-65) හා විවිධ භාෂා (#66-#72); GROUP II: සංගීතය (#40-42), චිත්‍ර (#43), නැටුම් (#-44-45), සාහිත්‍යය/රසාස්වාදය (#46-49) හා නාට්‍ය (50-52); GROUP III: තාක්ෂනය (#81-83), කලා ශිල්ප (#84), ගෘහ විද්‍යාව (#85), සෞඛ්‍යය හා ශාරීරික අධ්‍යාපනය (#86), සන්නිවේදනය හා මාධ්‍යය (#87), යතුරු ලියනය (#94)

[7] Six Compulsory subjects only

[8] In addition to the compulsory six subject students would be tested on three subjects selected from Group 1 to III

[9] In Singapore this stage is known as Post-secondary education while in UK it is Called Further Education stage.

[10] A reduced number from the present set of 62 subjects in four streams of study

[11] Some of the subjects including vocational subjects will assessed at school level only

[12]A reduced number from the present set of 62 subjects in four streams of study

[13] Some of the subjects including vocational subjects will assessed at school level only


Gamage, S. (2014). An experiment in holistic education in the primary grades in an education zone in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka during 2013-2014. Colombo: LIRNEasia.

Ampara Education Zonal Office (2014). දරුවන් ජීවිතයෙන් සමත් කරවන අධ්‍යාපනයක් සඳහා මං පෙත, පළමුවන ශ්‍රේණිය, දෙවන ශ්‍රේණිය, තුන්වන ශ්‍රේණිය, හතරවන ශ්‍රේණිය, පස්වන ශ්‍රේණිය.

MoE (2009). Final report of the committee of experts for reviewing the duties of the department of examinations of Sri Lanka and to make recommendations for improvement of its quality. Battaramulla, Sri Lanka: Ministry of Education

NEC (1992). The first report of the National Education Commission.  Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: National Education Commission

NEC (2003). Natinal Policy Framework on General Education. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: National Education Commission

NEC (2014). Study on evaluation & the assessment system in general education in Sri Lanka. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: National Education Commission

NEC (2016). Raising the Quality of Education: Proposals for a National Policy on General Education in Sri Lanka. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: National Education Commission.


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