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Presidential Committee and GCE A/L results

| by Sumanasiri Liyanage

( January 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many have expressed their dissatisfaction over the findings of the committee appointed by the President to investigate the results of the GCE A/L results 2012. Now the committee itself has come forward informing the public why the committee findings and recommendations failed to resolve the issue once and for all. Responding to my article on The Island (January 16), Prof Ranjith Premalal de Silva, Vice Chancellor of the Uva Wellassa University and a member of the committee informed us that "the five member committee discharged their functions according to the Terms of Reference entrusted upon them by the President". He has further revealed that the ToR of the committee had not included a provision to go into the heart of the issue, the method of calculation of the Z-score in a situation when the examination was held under two syllabi, new and old. Prof de Silva writes: "The committee had no mandate to question the legitimacy of Z score formula or the mathematical equation proposed by the five member expert committee appointed by the University Grants Commission to amalgamate the Z-scores of old and new syllabus candidates." Does it mean that we should accept Prof. de Silva’s plea of ‘not guilty’? I will turn to this question below. Let me confess that I am not an expert on statistics and have no intention of acquiring such knowledge in future. This is not because I have no faith or confidence in statistics or I believe statistics is ‘another big lie’, but because I am quite weak in quantitative analysis. I am ready and humble enough to accept that I was totally ignorant of the ToR when I wrote the above-mentioned article. However, the non-inclusion of the Z-score issue in the ToR, in my opinion, demonstrates that the people who were responsible for appointing the committee and preparing the ToR had from the outset an intention to sweep certain matters under the carpet. Psychoanalysis suggests that what is absent and silent are in many instances equally, if not more, important than what is present in understanding and diagnosing the problem.

The validity of the Z score and the correctness of the formula used are subjects that have to be debated by the experts in the field. That was why I did not blame respective ministers for not understanding the formula. Since I am not a person who could give a judgment on the subject, I was forced to depend on the studies by the experts. I found the argument of Prof. R O Thattil’s article is logically consistent. This logical consistency made me to believe he was correct. Meanwhile, Prof Nalin de Silva, came up with a fundamental argument that ranking done by using Z score method might have serious flaw in comparing groups with different properties. Hence, the issue he raised was that even when the performances of two students in three subjects were compared Z score may not provide a valid method of ranking. It appears to me that Prof. (Nalin) de Silva has made a valid point, but it is not relevant to the issue at hand. Of course, when we think of examinations in future, Prof. (Nalin) de Silva’s point has to be taken seriously. At the same time, we have to accept the fact two people, their properties are not fully comparable and any abstract formula grasps only certain features and properties. However, it does not mean that we should not use existing knowledge in making comparisons and ranking until we resolve all the relevant issues involved in such an exercise.

Prof. Ranjith Premalal de Silva responding to my claim that I believed Prof. Thattil was correct wrote: "However, Prof. Liyanage himself admits with a conditional statement that all his arguments are based on strong belief and not on the understanding of the relevant issue with Z score". He is correct that not only my beliefs but also my knowledge and understanding are conditional. And in social sciences, conditional knowledge is not a weakness. Let me confess again, I could not make a similar statement regarding natural sciences as my knowledge in that area is extremely limited. Since the committee consisted of people who were experts on their own field—I have no objection to add statistics as an area of expertise of Prof Ranjith Premala de Silva)—I strongly believe they the members would have carefully read the ToR before setting about their task asked themselves whether they could within the given mandate do justice to the issue? Had they done so, they would have realised that the investigation within the purview of the given ToR was not meaningful. Academics should not agree to do anything that they are asked to do. They have to be aware of the fact that what they should perform is a socially responsible task. They should have the right and courage to refuse to do thing that they believe do not produce reasonable results. My second argument is that although Prof de Silva, referring to the issue that was raised by Joseph Stalin, claimed that he could prove that Stalin was wrong, he did not try in his article to prove, using his expertise in spatial statistics, the correctness of Z score formula used in the ranking exercise. I am sure there is no ToR that limits Prof de Silva when he writes to newspapers. So he could have used his expertise in the field to counter the argument by Prof Thattil. Had he done so in a logically consistent way, I would have even changed my ‘conditional statement’ about Prof Thattil’s article.

I should make one final comment. Prof. (Premalal) de Silva’s article raised an important issue over attitude. He seems to think that those who raised questions over examination results tries to mess up education. One problem in this country is that when someone raises an issue over something she or he is branded a spoiler. This happened to me personally soon after the conclusion of the long trade union action by FUTA. When the government and the FUTA agreed for a compromise formula to end the trade union action, some leading members of FUTA started malicious mud-slinging campaign against me saying I had betrayed the TU action taking the side of the government. In a similar manner, Prof de Silva seems to assume that we raised these issues relating to the GCE A/L exam results to discredit the government. If the government and its officials had stepped into shoes of the candidates and their parents, and looked at the issue in a less arrogant manner, this matter would have been resolved a long time ago. Whistle-blowing is one of the corrective mechanisms of democracy.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya . He can be reached at sumane_l@yahoo.lk

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