Students of universities of Punjab, Peshawar and Karachi fared the worst
ISLAMABAD: While a fact-finding body is probing the causes of the disappointing results of the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) exams in 2016, the documents the FPSC submitted in parliament reveal that most failing candidates were graduates of Punjab University, Peshawar University and Karachi University.
The results stirred a national debate about the nature of tests, techniques and reasons behind a perpetual decline in scores. Recently a parliamentary committee sought a report from the FPSC about the appalling results and reasons behind the poor showing.
According to the results released in October, as many as 9,643 candidates sat the CSS written test. However, only 202, or 2.09% of the candidates, qualified. This is the lowest percentage of successful students since 2011. A detailed report about over 150 universities nationwide paints a dismal picture.
Record drop in CSS pass rate sparks concern
The highest number of candidates [1,466] was from Punjab University. But 1,444 students of the university failed the test and only 22 were declared pass. Around 462 students of Peshawar University appeared in the exams but only five of them made the grade.
Similarly, only four candidates out of 379 graduates of Karachi University were able to pass the test while three students out of 329 graduates of Bahauddin Zakariya University were declared passed.
Given the performance of the candidates, Nust stood out as the most successful. About 19 graduates of Nust were successful in passing the written test which is the second highest number after Punjab University. As many as 157 Nust graduates failed the written test but their aggregate is better in terms of pass-fail ratio of over 150 varsities.
Only four universities were able to reach the double digits in terms of successful candidates. These include Punjab University (22), Nust (19), Lahore University of Management Sciences (16), University of Engineering and Technology Lahore (11).
At the provincial level Punjab had the highest share of 146 successful candidates followed by 18, 29 and 4 from the K-P, Sindh, Balochistan respectively. Only one candidate passed the test from Gilgit-Baltistan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas and four from Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
The traditional gender disparity is also apparent in the test results as about 116 male and 86 female candidates passed the written test. Lahore had the highest number of successful candidates where 91 candidates out of 2,730 cleared the written test, followed by 39 from Islamabad, 18 from Rawalpindi and less than 10 from the rest of the major cities in the country.
Declining CSS results leave top recruiter scratching its head
An initial report from the FPSC submitted before parliament states: “For various reasons, the pass percentage remained significantly low, which is a matter of great concern…this indicates deteriorating standard of education in universities, colleges.”
The National Assembly Standing Committee on Cabinet Secretariat in October sought a complete report from the FPSC about the reasons for the significant decline in the number of passing candidates. The number of vacant seats is also increasing every year, and at present 431 posts are lying vacant.
The examiners’ subject-wise reports uploaded on the FPSC website present a gloomy picture of the approach and understanding of the candidates. One of the examiners noted that some candidates were not serious.
Several examiners suggested a screening or pre-examination or screening test for the candidates before the actual written test. Interestingly, the suggestion has been awaiting approval of the federal cabinet since 2013.
As per the FPSC report about 92% (8,894) candidates failed English précis and composition while 81% (7,841) students failed the English Essay exam. Similarly, about 50%, 43% and 36% failed the general knowledge I, II and III, respectively.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2016.
Read more: CSS , FPSC
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, an 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.
Civil service exams are not testing for intelligence.
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 madressahs. All that might be separating the two would be the back-and-forth swaying.
To summarise: 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 programmes 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 need to be effective. A genuine commitment to civil service reform would be alert to these dangers.
The writer moderates The South Asian Idea Weblog.
Published in Dawn December 20th, 2016