On May 24, 2013, some 221 thousand job seekers appeared at the 34th BCS preliminary exam and many of them have got a feeling that the question paper was not at all up to the required standard. This article is an attempt to find out why the case is so and what its implications are for the country's major recruitment tests.
In the literature on testing, a standard or, as it is actually called, a standardised test has three major characteristics. Firstly, standardised tests are based on a fixed or standard content, which does not vary from one form of the test to another. A representative sample of this specified content is tested on a particular test day. Secondly, there are standard procedures for administering and grading which also do not vary from one test to the next. Finally, standardised tests have been thoroughly tried out, and through a process of empirical research and development, their characteristics are well known. The question is whether the recruitment tests administered by the Bangladesh Public Service Commission (BPSC) and other recruiting agencies in our country fulfill the above mentioned criteria.
According to the official website of BPSC, Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) tests are generally held on Bangla, English, mathematical problems and IQ, everyday science and technology, Bangladesh and international affairs. While there is a detailed syllabus on BCS written exams, there is no such thing for the preliminary part of the test. According to recent practices followed until the 34th preliminary exam, approximately 20 questions each were set on everyday science and technology, mathematical problems and IQ, Bangla grammar and literature, English grammar and literature, 10 items each on Bangladesh affairs and international affairs. Prior to the 29th preliminary exam, the case was slightly different with 10 items on mathematics, 10 on science and technology and 20 items each on Bangla, English, Bangladesh and international affairs. There were variations, but not significant enough to make one confused as to the very purpose of the question papers for which those were meant.
This variation has reached its extreme in the recently held 34th preliminary test. Quite surprisingly and to the utter dismay of many candidates, only five questions were set on English and some 30 items were on science and technology. While there were 20 questions on Bangla, there was none on Bangla grammar. It is quite painful for those who invest much of their time on English, an inseparable part of every recruitment test, and no question on Bangla grammar is equally disappointing for the same reasons.
While preliminary exams are designed to eliminate the very ordinary candidates, the elimination must come through a standard procedure. There is no place for playing hide and seek with the millions of job seekers as the BCS exam like any other recruitment test is certainly a system in place for choosing talented candidates in the best possible manner to serve the nation.
So clearly, the 34th preliminary test flouted the first principle of a standardised test. As far as the second characteristic is concerned, the BPSC has, of course, a standard procedure for administering the test, which is known to all. But when it comes to the written part, one cannot but feel disappointed. In the 33rd BCS written exams, candidates had to attend two tests per day though the customary practice was one test a day. While the country's volatile political atmosphere is to be blamed to some extent, attempts should be made not to tinker with the standard procedures for holding the exams.
Regarding the third criterion that calls for well tried-out items in a test, in no ways can BPSC's exam be called a standardised one. In the 34th preliminary, one can find that some items have two correct answers and sometimes there is no correct answer at all. One question asks for the name of the only Hindu country in Asia, though there is no such country at present. One item asks the source of insulin in human body and puts both pancreas and its Bangla equivalent 'agnashoi' in the answer options. One item asks for the name of the writer who will be remembered forever as the father of Bangla literature, though there is no one who is exactly called the father of Bangla literature. The names of Bankim, Ishwarchandra and Madhusudan have been mentioned but they are fathers of a relevant branch of Bangla literature only. They are called the fathers of Bangla novels, Bangla prose and Bangla modern poetry respectively. This indicates that the items on test have not been be researched and possibly have been copied from some poor commercially produced materials with all their imperfections.
According to the literature on testing, a very good test is valid if it accurately measures what it claims to measure. It is reliable if it is consistent in whatever it measures. From the discussions above, it appears that the BCS preliminary test has problems with test validity as there are significant variations on its contents and consequently has repercussions for its reliability too. Many candidates who once qualified for the recruitment test cannot be expected to do the same in another version of the test as it is inconsistent in the selection of test contents.
A similar scene is prevailing in many other recruitment tests in Bangladesh, such as the bankers' recruitment tests and the countrywide teachers' registration exams, where the tests reflect similar questions of lack of validity and consistency.
This article will remain incomplete if another issue is not addressed. While being contacted, a source known to be close to some BPSC officials opined that the BPSC is more interested in a question paper that is not leaked and consequently has less time to devote to the standardisation of the process. This seems pretty convincing as the premier recruiting agency has to give public statements every now and then that the question papers have not been leaked. This issue brings a debilitating scenario in the country's recruitment tests, a situation further worsened by a reported leaked question paper in the recently held Agrani Bank recruitment test.
A faulty system of test administration bereft of professional integrity can lead us to a pathetic situation and consequent falling apart of all basic norms and standards relating to merit testing. This is a serious issue and calls for concerted efforts to bring the entire system under scrutiny in order that its positive outcome gets reflected not only in the appropriate mechanism of testing but also in the task of nation building where merit is undisputedly the sole contributor.
The writer is Director of Career Club and an assistant professor of English at Northern University Bangladesh.