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Experts weigh in on Z score abolition

A recent Government decision to abolish the Z score system for university enrollment has received mixed reactions from academics and educationists.

Earlier this month, the Cabinet of Ministers announced a new “school-based scientific method” to select students for government universities in place of the existing district-based Z score system.

Cabinet approval was granted for a proposal by Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma to appoint a committee of experts to provide recommendations for the proposed system. The current Z score system introduced in 2001, Alahapperuma told reporters on 12 December, selects students for university entrance on a 55 per cent district, 40 per cent national and 5 per cent rural basis.

The primacy given to the district level, he said, results in a disadvantage to other students in the same district. So instead of the district basis, 55 per cent will be selected on school basis, while keeping the other selection criteria unchanged.

It appears that expert opinion on the proposed system is divided.

Explaining the genesis of Z score system, Dr Tara De Mel, who was Secretary to the Ministry of Education at the time the system was introduced, told RepublicNext that it sought to address the drawbacks of the method prior which was based on the total raw marks of different subjects obtained by the students.

“Sri Lankan education system went through reforms during the years 1999 to 2004 and comprised a series of changes to Grades 1 to 12 as recommended by the Presidential Task Force on Education and the National Education Commission during that period. Under the Advanced Level (A/L) reform,s the number of subjects offered was reduced from four to three, while a new formula, Z score, for university admission selection was introduced,” said Dr De Mel.

“It came into being due to the disadvantages of taking the total raw marks of different subjects to select students to universities. The Z score is a number derived from a formula that took into consideration the student’s mark per each subject (X), the average mark of all students for that subject (X1) and the standard deviation (SD). In other words, X – X1 divided by the SD = Z score (a quantity that had a mean of zero & an SD = 1, whichever the subjects under consideration),” she added.

Former Senior Professor of Languages at the University of Sabaragamuwa Prof Rajiva Wijesinha said that, although the system was designed to promote equity given the different levels of education available in the country, the fact that it does not differentiate between schools in different districts it is problematic.

“The Z-score weightage system was designed to promote equity given the different levels of education available in the country, but it is a sausage machine type approach that does not differentiate between schools in different districts. These are of varying quality. And because the Z-score could be held up as promoting equity, nothing has been done since in fact Kannangara’s time to actively promote better facilities for students in areas where these are lacking. Because of our unhealthy concentration on universities, to which only a few have access, we have done little to improve the quality of education nationwide generally,” Wijesinha said.

Wijesinha further said that while the Government’s decision to change the existing Z score system is generally a good move, the quality of the Sri Lankan education system can be further improved by taking steps such as upgrading below par schools, providing remedial teaching as well as developing soft skills of students through Divisional Centres of Excellence.

However, Prof R.O. Thattil, a senior academic at the University of Peradeniya who was also a member of the committee which introduced the Z score system, said that he believes the Government has misunderstood the Z score as being related to the district quota system.

“The Z score is a procedure to make the subject marks comparable. The solution to the issues in the existing system is to upgrade the facilities of schools in the poorer districts rather than giving quotas. I don’t see any science in introducing a quota for schools. The system should be ultimately based on pure merit by gradually reducing quotas while improving facilities of schools,” Prof Thattil said.

University of Colombo

Meanwhile, LIRNEasia Senior Research Fellow Dr Sujata Gamage believes the conversation around the Z score is a red herring.

“In a patronage-based society like Sri Lanka, we need imperfect but objective criteria like the Z-score to select students to popular university courses or whatever other scarce opportunities. Alternatives to the present system will bring on other complications,” she warned.

Dr Gamage also noted that taking GCE (A/L) and Z-score as the sole criteria of success is unhealthy.

“The larger issue is that the reliance on GCE (A/L) and Z-score as the sole criteria of success because it is corrupting the education system by reducing learning to the ability to show that you have managed to retain the material covered in a set curriculum, at least until the time of the exam.

“Instead, if you reduce the content in school curricula and add more activity-based and student-centred learning opportunities, the problems of the existing system can be addressed. Schools should not be ranked by their popularity but the schools’ efforts to provide activity-based and student-centred learning opportunities which give students not only Subject Competency demonstrated by test scores but also transversal competencies such as critical and innovative thinking, inter-personal and intra-personal competencies, Citizenship, Medial and IT literacy,” she said.

Dr Gamage is also sceptical of the proposed school-based system. The Government’s decision to introduce a “school-based scientific method”, she said, does not seem to be a well-thought idea.

“If by school-based, they mean deriving a Z-score one school at a time, it does not matter how well a student does. He/she will have to do better than other students in his/her class.  Rivalry among students will go to a new level, even threatening the security of students,” she said.

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