The Curse Of 33%

The state of education in Pakistan leaves little room for accolades. And to add to the already abysmal state of affairs is the pass percentage of 33% that remains unaltered and unchanged ever since our colonial masters who devised the metric left it that way. Intsab Sahi investigates if 33% being the criteria of passing an exam in Pakistan has really been a curse that we have failed to break

he continued dismal state of education in Pakistan has always provided ample raw material for political and social sloganeering; and formed the basis of a much familiar promise – a promise of educational reforms by those in power, a promise that the countrymen have seen broken far too often. No matter how far you go into the country’s life, education, arguably, has been one of the favorite topics exploration and debate of policy-makers, legislators and activists alike. However, once anyone of these proponents of better education finds him or herself at the helm of affairs, education becomes a distant concern.

When it comes to education, there has been a lot of focus on improving the system throughout the country’s 72-year history. Better schools, better environment, better facilities. If we look hard enough, the focus, sadly, has been on improving what’s visible, or on optics, so to speak. The real concern should have been ensuring changes in the curriculum keeping in line with changes and developments happening around the world. Instead, we have been all but too concerned about debating what medium of instruction to employ, what concepts to remove, which personalities to add and subtract etc.

Staticness The Only Constant? 

One of the most unfortunate example of us going round in circles is the fact that in over a hundred years, or since the introduction of the matriculation system by British, the passing marks have remained at 33%. An apt example of “barely making it”.   Fasi Zaka, the renowned political commentator, columnist, and anchor opined that “this figure is a historical anomaly.” But given it is one and even though anomalies seldom go unnoticed, the passing threshold of 33% has, oddly, remained unquestioned. “Pass-mark is a representation of a core level of education.” Therefore, by extension of his last comment, it is realized that a student needs to know at least one-third of subject-syllabus to pass an exam.

Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra belives the British decision to let 33% be the passing marks was more of an advocacy move, rather than a humiliating one

Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra, one of the most respected Pakistani educationists, said the decision to let 33% be the passing marks was more of an advocacy move of part of the British rather than a humiliating one, as claimed or perceived by many. “They started the system as an advocacy,” said Zehra, a history professor and an expert on Urdu language.  She said when the British decided to set a low pass-mark at the secondary level for the subcontinent, as opposed to a higher pass-mark they had back home, “it was a pragmatic approach towards the new system to promote educational achievement”.

Blame And Shame

But is blaming the colonial masters for decisions that may or may not have been ill-intended is necessary to set our own house in order? If Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy is to be believed, it certainly is easy, even if not entirely necessary. “It is easier to question the predecessors than to admit our inadequacies. There is little learning that goes around in our educational institutions.” He might be on to something. Over the years, the focus of our education system has moved from teaching children to become inquirers, learners and implementers of knowledge, to turning them into machines that memorize page after page of tens of textbooks and reproduce word by word onto a paper at the speed of light. 

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy opines that it is easier to question the predecessors than to admit our inadequacie

Take a glance at any schools or tuition or coaching centre and you will know what we are hinting at. The only promotions you see outside of them are the list of students with high marks. That’s their USP, and the only one for that matter. They will never sell you the fact that they will turn a child into a learner. But what they do promise is marks, loads of it.  While one pole of Pakistan’s education mayhem depicts this mad race for marks, the opposite pole represents a meagre milestone that many still fail to cross. Despite appearing to be a rather attainable percentage, obtaining 33% marks si still an elusive mirage for many Pakistani students 

One of the reasons for this failure is financial stress. Mussarat Inayat, vice-principal Government Victoria Girls High Secondary School, said socio-economic factors were a key cause of a student’s inability to perform well. And that could explain why many fail to even cross the 33% line. But whatever the passing grade may be, playing with numbers cannot change the quality of education. “A serious rethinking is the need of the hour,” according to Dr Arfa Zehra. But she added that “rethinking and reevaluation cannot be based on borrowed ideas”. “When making policies the indigenous culture patterns and socio-economic conditions cannot be ignored,” she opined.

“We have been focusing on statistics and not realities. Education is integrity and anyone involved in the pursuit and propagation of education, hence, is burdened with dispensing and receiving knowledge.”

Off Target 

So the focus, really should not be the passing marks, high or low, but rather what is desired of a student to attain those marks. Is the system only wanting a reproduction of ideas found in books, or is a student required to exhibit an understanding or application of those ideas. For instance, an exam question in Pakistan would typically ask students what a car is and expect him or her to write how an average car has four wheels, some seats, a steering and so on. On the contrary, examiners in other parts of the world with better education systems would generally ask students what can be done with a car

One focuses on recollection, the other on imagination.

Dr Hoodbhoy’s concern related to a somewhat similar problem. The physicist said there was extreme incompetence in sciences. He is, indeed true, for when scientific learning is limited to memorization, not experimentation or field learning or curiosity, scientific discovery is not encouraged. 

Education, Where Art Thou?

So the question Pakistanis must really be asking is: how long will education be measured in terms of marks, facilities at schools and literacy rate etc. Literacy rate, especially when it is defined as the ability to write one’s name, does not determine the success of an education system or educational reforms for that matter.  The reformation of a system of education lies in progressive changes in the curriculum, improvements in the examination the overall learning experience. It is safe to say that raising the passing marks from 33% to, say, 50% will ensure that those with higher understanding of a topic are deemed pass. 

But it will never ensure that those making the higher grade know any better, just that they have a slightly better memory retention and recall more things than those at 33%. Or to put it even more simply, they can name more car parts, without really having a clue where those car part are found and what they are for, essentially. Thirty three percent or 99%, passing numbers are insignificant. What is significant is the drill a student must go through to get to those marks. 

Aristotle famously said: the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. 

So while we might be living, the education and the parameters we wrongfully associate with education, doesn’t make us truly alive.