Posts Tagged ‘Examination’

CSS Questions: Ideology or Science

June 10, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

In connection with the much discussed concerns with the performance of the civil service in Pakistan, I have suggested that in addition to obvious factors like the quality of education in the country and the terms and conditions of employment during service, it might be useful to look at the particulars of the selection test itself. The objective would be to assess how the test impacts the behavior of candidates and whether it encourages self-selection of particular types of candidates.

The argument can be motivated with one illustrative question from the compulsory Islamiat paper downloaded from the version of the 2015 CSS examination available on the website of the Federal Public Service Commission. The question is as follows:

“Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.”

Now consider the implications of the question. First, note the word ‘prove’ which is generally used in the context of propositions that are known to be factually true and whose truth is to be demonstrated by empirical verification or logical argumentation. The proposition that the earth is round or that the theorem of Pythagoras holds are familiar examples. Is there really any way to convincingly prove in this sense an article of faith asserting that a religious obligation can ensure economic stability of a society? Is there really any need to prove an article of faith?

Second, assume that nevertheless an attempt is made to prove the proposition. Does the question provide acceptable clarity on what is meant by ‘economic stability of a society’ the existence of which is to be proved? What are the indicators that characterize economic stability? What is to be considered the distinction between stability and instability?

Third, consider the question in a broader economic context. As an obligatory payment levied on wealth and earmarked for poverty alleviation, Zakat is only one instrument among many other economic instruments and policies. Is it realistic to imply that just one instrument can ensure economic stability in a society if many of the other policies are poorly conceived and implemented? Would it suffice if, say, the economy is undergoing hyperinflation?

Fourth, consider the empirical evidence. Zakat is not only widely practised in Pakistan but also compulsorily collected by the state. Many would claim it has not led to an acceptable level of economic stability, however defined, in the country. The only argument that can be advanced to defend the proposition is the counterfactual one, i.e., that if Zakat were to be implemented ‘effectively’ the objective would be achieved. This reverts to being an article of faith leaving no room to argue that a single instrument, no matter how effectively implemented, might not be sufficient to guarantee economic stability in a society.

Fifth, and most importantly, consider the dilemma of candidates faced with this question. Quite independent of their individual opinions, would anyone risk offering an answer that might be contrary to the belief of an unknown examiner? Would they jeopardise the chance of a prestigious career by expressing intelligent opinions no matter how well argued? Would there be some candidates who would balk at the need to argue contrary to their experiential understanding and what would be the price of their intellectual honesty?

What is the likely outcome of posing this type of question? Zakat is a staple topic that is repeated every few years. It has a safe and acceptable answer that is available for memorization. My guess is that the majority of the candidates would opt for a safety-first strategy and give the examiners what they presume the latter are looking for. As a result the answers would be fairly similar and standard reflecting no original thought. This contention could be easily verified by reviewing the answers to this question submitted by successful candidates.

It is possible to frame the same question in a much more neutral manner. One rephrasing could be as follows:

“Many countries rely on a wealth tax to smooth economic inequalities in society. Is there an analogous instrument in Islam? If so, describe briefly the principal characteristics of the instrument. Is the effective implementation of a wealth tax sufficient to alleviate absolute poverty in a society? If yes, describe briefly how that can be achieved in Pakistan. If not, what other measures might be needed to achieve the objective?”

Such a reformulation would allow students much more leeway to demonstrate their independent thinking and analytical abilities. The question would not be seeking a pre-determined correct answer but a broader knowledge of social issues, the mechanisms available to address them in a religious tradition, and the real-life conditions in which the mechanisms are likely to be sufficient and most effective. These qualities rather than the ability to reproduce unquestioned texts should be what is expected of the candidates inducted into the civil service.

Lest it be thought that I have chosen an unrepresentative question I am reproducing another from the same examination paper:

“Argue for supremacy of Wahi as the solution of human problems against other sources of knowledge.”

Readers will note that it is susceptible to the same limitations as the earlier question in that it leaves room for only one safe and acceptable answer. This is what is termed a loaded question and it is not considered good pedagogical practice to include such faith-based tenets in examinations.

Consider further how this question might be reconciled with the following question posed in the Islamic History and Culture paper:

“The Spanish Muslims established the foundations of Knowledge which become the mile stone (sic) of progress in Europe. Explain.”

Given that the earlier question calls for an argument for the supremacy of Wahi against other sources of knowledge, did Muslims establish Wahi as the foundation of knowledge in Spain? That is unlikely to have been the case since Europe did not rely on it as a milestone in its progress. So the real question might turn out to be about the evolution of knowledge and the reasons for it in Muslim Spain. Such contradictions are bound to emerge if faith and reason are mixed up in this unthinking manner.

The usual response to such arguments is to deflect attention from their logic and suppress discussion by questioning the nationalism or religious faith of the writer. Such a tendency which has grown manifold in Pakistan is itself an outcome of the kinds of tests of faith to which all students are subjected throughout their education. Many people, including examiners, now believe there is only one correct answer to every question and it is the answer to which they subscribe. Questioning as a quality of mind is to be weeded out rather than encouraged. It is an attitude for which society has to pay a heavy price of which one is the burden of a pliant civil service.

This opinion was published in Express Tribune on June 9, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. It is a follow-up to an earlier article, CSS: Probing the Examination.

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CSS: Probing the Examination

April 12, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

It stands to reason that a poor selection test would be unable to identify the best candidates in any given applicant pool. Given the importance of the civil service I reviewed recent CSS written examinations and discovered serious issues of intellectual ineptitude and quality control.

Questions from the 2015 and 2016 examination papers whose scans are posted on the official FPSC website were reviewed. Those mentioned below are faithfully reproduced without  correcting for errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation or grammar which the alert reader would spot easily. Commentary is avoided for lack of space leaving the reader to identify problems which range from the amusing to the highly problematic. Some would merely confuse applicants while others might force them to dissemble or risk being failed.

Starting with the less serious, a question from the compulsory English Precis and Composition paper asks applicants to correct the following sentence: “We were staying at my sister’s cape’s code vacation home.” From the British History paper: ““Margarte Thatcher is judged to be best post war Prime Minister of England.” Discuss.” From the History of Pakistan and India paper: “Political Parties are responsible for the imposition of Marshal Laws in Pakistan. Comment.” From the Economics paper: “Discuss the Rostow’s stage of growth with special reference to Pakistan.”

Two questions from the International Relations paper: “Critically discuss the fundamental factors of “Greece Economic Crisis” which need huge financial assistance from European Union and IMF as a debt relief to create “a breathing space” to stabilize economy and explain out-of-the-box solution for the crisis-ridden country.” And, “Critically discuss main political, socio-economic and strategic hurdles between “Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations” and how can both countries come out from the Cold War scenario?”

Two questions from the Comparitive (sic) Studies of Major Religions paper: “What was the secret of success of Buddhism and its effects on the Hinduism? Discuss.” “Describe the effects of biography and teachings of great preacher of Hinduism “SHIRI RAM Chandar G” on the society?”

Two questions from the Sociology paper: “Youth is an asset of any nation but Pakistani youth is inclined towards youth bulge. What strategies being an expert suggests the state to put the youth on positive track? Give your suggestions in the light of sociological theories.” And, “Why social stratification is an inevitable for a society? Explain its determinants in the context of Pakistani society.”

Some questions are out of place. From the Anthropology paper: “What are the major Contemporary Social Problems of Pakistan?” Some lack meaningful details. From the English Literature paper: “After their gift exchange, are Della and Jim richer, poorer, or just about where they were at the beginning? Have they made a wise decision in sacrificing their most precious possessions?”

Some questions reveal a sloppiness that comes in the way of a proper understanding of the question. Consider this from the General Knowledge paper: “Jinnah in his Presidential Address to the annual session of All India Muslim League in March 1940 said, “The problem in India is not of an inter-communal character, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” Write note on the Two Nation Theory and the Lahore Resolution of March 1940 in the light of this statement.”

From the Governance and Public Policies paper: “Do you support the representation of public opinion information diffusion in the policy making process? Support your answer with valid justification in the context of policy advocacy.”

More problematic are questions that really allow only one answer to avoid putting a candidate’s chances at risk. Consider this from the General Knowledge paper: “Discuss the prospects and challenges to the construction of “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” How will CPEC become a game changer for the region?” From the compulsory Islamiat paper. “Argue for supremacy of ‘Wahi’ as the solution of human problems against other sources of knowledge.” From the Islamic History and Culture paper: ““Administration of Justice” has been the policy of Muslim Rulers throughout History. Explain.”

Other one-sided questions are ambiguous in addition. From the Islamiat paper: “Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.” Some questions combine many of these problems: From the Islamic History and Culture paper: “The Spanish Muslims established the foundations of Knowledge which become the mile stone of progress in Europe. Explain.” And, “Muslim culture in Pakistan is being dominated by European and Hindu Culture. Do you think we need Renaissance and Reformation? Explain.” From the Political Science paper: “Discuss the features of Turkish model of democracy keeping the distinguished position of the armed forces in the Turkish politics.” From the Public Administration paper: “It is easier to make a constitution than to run it. Discuss in the light of Politics Administration dichotomy.” From the International Relations paper: “Discuss the “Moral Dimensions of Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme.” Explain its essential features and justify its offensive gesture which maintained the national and regional strategic balance.”  

The following problems are quite obvious: The questions exhibit very poor command of the English language and manifest thinking in Urdu while transcribing in English. It is ironic that applicants are asked to write their answers in a language over which examiners have such poor control. There are factually incorrect, incomplete and misplaced questions. Most importantly, there are questions with only one safe answer and where matters of faith are asked to be scientifically proved.

It was Oscar Wilde who quipped that “In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.” This kind of examination would surely rule out the wise in favor of the dull, the timid, and the clever – those who memorize appropriate answers, refrain from speaking their minds, and say what would curry favor. A selection mechanism cannot identify selectees wiser than the selectors. That might explain the dilemma of the civil service in which each cohort is weaker than the one it succeeds. The order is the reverse in societies moving forward.

And consider that this is the state of the premier examination in the country. What might be the fate of the testing of lesser mortals is best left unexplored.

This opinion was published in Dawn on April 11, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The first two articles in this series are CSS: Danger Alert and CSS: Why English?

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CSS: Why English?

January 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject.

The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals.

On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More than one survey has identified the low quality of many teachers in the school system.

However, little can be done to improve the quality of education in the short term. Critical to any education system are curricula, pedagogical ability, and room for open inquiry. All have to move together for the system to improve in any meaningful sense – changing one or two is not enough. Given the balance of forces in the country, there is little hope that the right combination can be achieved to make a difference to, say, the CSS results in the near term.

The one unexplored aspect in this regard is the nature of the CSS examination itself. It is not at all obvious whether the examination is screening for competence and intelligence or for conformity and compliant behavior. If the latter, the very low success rate may not be an accurate indicator of the quality of the applicant pool.  

Part of this bias in the testing instrument is, I suspect, deliberate. The nature of questions comprising the compulsory papers and the orientation of coaching in preparatory centers lend credence to the hypothesis that the test is consciously screening for a particular type of candidate.

But there is a less obvious bias related to the 92% failure rate in English which raises a profound question: Is it possible to be competent and intelligent without an adequate command of English? If so, how many otherwise qualified applicants are being excluded by the CSS examination? Keep in mind that asides from the compulsory English paper most other papers have to be answered in English as well.

[Consider the double burden under which even the best of the students labor. Here, from the FPSC website, is the instruction accompanying the CSS English Essay paper: “Candidates will be required to write one or more Essay in English. A wide choice of topics will be given. Candidates are expected to reflect comprehensive and research based knowledge on a selected topic. Candidate’s articulation, expression and technical treatment of the style of English Essay writing will be examined.” Pity the examinee attempting to articulate a research-based reflection and expressing it in accordance with the technical treatment of the style of the English essay. English appears as elusive to the examiners as it is to the examinees.]

This is a self-inflicted problem that does have a short-term solution. It may seem radical at the outset to suggest that applicants may be allowed to answer all papers in the language in which they are most comfortable with English being made a non-compulsory paper. But how radical is it really?

Accepting for the moment that competence in English is necessary for Pakistani civil servants, is it not possible to attain this by having the selected candidates undergo intensive language instruction with expert tutors during their first year? How difficult is it for an intelligent adult to learn English as a foreign language? Many Pakistani students awarded scholarships for higher education in European countries are able to learn the languages sufficiently to pursue their degrees. It is by no means an impossible task.

This suggests a radically different approach to selection: Pick the brightest applicants and teach them enough English rather than rejecting potentially superior students because they have been inadequately schooled in the language. The pool of qualified applicants could be expected to increase despite the admittedly poor system of education in the country.

The sceptics should consider the precedent for the selection of British civil servants in Colonial India. The ablest candidates were screened for general competence and subsequently trained in Indian languages under highly qualified teachers at Fort Williams College. Imagine if they had been selected based on prior familiarity with a foreign language.

Improving the health of the ailing civil service in Pakistan is possible. As for all maladies, the first step is a credible diagnosis.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 5, 2017, in English and Urdu and is reproduced here with permission of the author. This is the second article in this series. Read the first part here.

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CSS: Danger Alert

December 21, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) – in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed – has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: It lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good.

Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: If the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case.

Second, the observation: As one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed. This observation so intrigued me that over the past two years I have investigated the experience of students who appeared in the examination.

Here is an example to set one thinking: A student went into the CSS examination with a 94th percentile ranking in the SAT writing test, an A+ in a BA writing and communication course, a 85th percentile ranking in the GRE essay test, and a 100 percentile ranking in the TOEFL. In the CSS English essay he was awarded 12 marks out of 100 and failed. In contrast, a number of students who found writing a coherent paragraph difficult, cleared the essay.

Something was clearly amiss and my investigations led to the following hypothesis: An examination can be strictly meritocratic and extremely rigorous and yet be entirely misleading at the same time.

To pass judgement on an examination one has to know what it is testing for. I can assert with some confidence that the CSS examination is not testing for intelligence or creativity or command over language. Rather, I sense it is testing for obedience to a metanarrative, loyalty to an officially sanctioned ideology, and the forswearing of all questioning of the status quo.

I found that a four-year undergraduate education, even from the best institutions in the country, is not enough to sit the CSS examination successfully. Close to another year of preparation in a coaching centre is needed where students are drilled in what is considered acceptable in answers to typical questions, what authorities are to be cited prominently or avoided at all costs, and even what part of the text is to be highlighted.

Then there are the questions themselves about which candidates are instructed not to express their own opinions. Rather, they are required to demonstrate knowledge of the acceptable answers and reproduce them without error in the required format. Many questions are formulated in ways that leave room for only one acceptable and safe answer.

Smart students entered the year of coaching aware of what it entailed but with the confidence that they could play along to pass the examination and then revert to what they really believed in. While some did survive, many emerged with their personalities altered. This was indoctrination at its most effective. I could not help thinking of the CSS academies as upscale equivalents of the much criticised madrassas. All that might be separating the two would be the back-and-forth swaying.

To summarize: For some years now the examination is selecting those who will “do or die” not those who would “reason why” and I suspect this is being done consciously. I hope I am wrong but to prove that one would need to open up the system for review. I can offer the following suggestion. First, all those who passed the most recent written examination should be administered a standard international test,  ideally at the GRE level since the applicants have completed their undergraduate education. Given that there are only 200 applicants this would be quite affordable and would provide an immediate assessment against a global benchmark of the ability of individuals being inducted into the civil service.

Second,  the CSS examination papers and a random sample of answer books of successful candidates should be given to an international panel representing the selection boards of a number of countries, like the UK, France, and Singapore, with highly regarded civil services. The panel would be charged with identifying weaknesses in the CSS selection system and with recommending appropriate changes.

The intellectual calibre of the civil service is a key attribute in its ability to implement the programs on which the future of the country depends. It is dangerous to start off forcing applicants to dissemble to enter the service and necessary to ensure that their selection screens for the skills and talents needed to be effective. A genuine commitment to civil service reform would be alert to these dangers.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn on December 20, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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