Flawed questions

Furor has greeted the ambiguities and errors that were in the national examination questions for second- and third-year senior high students, the most serious case involving those in the mathematics paper for final-year students. The issue has sparked legitimate anger from thousands of families, since under the existing system, a pupil’s performance in the examinations decides whether and by which institution he or she will be accepted. This is of fundamental importance to many families, as it translates into extra expenses of thousands of euros a year. The anxiety and, perhaps, indignation of a section of society will be justified if it is found that certain flawed questions – few as these may be – could play a fundamental role in a pupil’s position in the overall ratings. Competition is so fierce that a paper-thin margin can decide a student’s academic placement. What is not justifiable is the apparent superficiality or frivolity (we don’t even want to think it’s a case of lack of knowledge) with which the national examinations board chose and formulated the exam questions. The board members have all the leeway to pose accurate questions and ought to do so with a strong sense of responsibility, especially given the social implications of their actions. The choice of unclear or controversial questions shows signs of arrogance and a disregard for society – which only adds to the broader loosening of social responsibility and cohesion. Their political superiors are not innocent. After decades of often painful national examinations for university entry, the public has enough experience to be able to understand that the selection process is often manipulated in order to serve politically expedient objectives. So we see easy questions when the government promotes a new (and unpopular) examination system or when it tries to put on a more social face. Similarly, we see difficult questions when a system has come full circle and needs to be replaced. Furthermore, in the event of faulty questions, any later adjustment in the scoring will be unfair to some students and violates the principle of equal competition. Some candidates may have wasted time dealing with the controversial questions to the expense of other subjects. The price for that could be a place in a different university or university school. But this means little to those who are only concerned about shirking their responsibilities.