Thai youth, too, are bearing the brunt of pandemic-induced volatility that is shaping the world we live in. Ever since the first wave of the COVID-19 hit us, nearly 240,000 studentsdropped out of the education system (e.g. compulsory and vocational education). More than 16 out of 100 youth could not continue their study due to poverty, lack of accessible financial aid and IT devices, and inadequate digital infrastructure. At the same time, the number of students who fell under the category of “extreme poverty” skyrocketed to 1 million, breaking the all-time record.
But the list of hardships does not simply stop here. Beneath these tangible issues lie problems so insidious, invisible to the eye even.
While youth are struggling to survive the financial crisis and the education system that operates on –to put it tactfully– an unaccommodating basis, their minds are also weighted down by distress. Back in 2020, the National Statistical Office of Thailand conducted surveys on the mental wellbeing of the public. The study found that 50% of the respondents felt ‘extremely’ anxious about the pandemic to the point that their everyday life was affected by deteriorated mental health.
Of all age groups, youth (aged 15 – 24) had the lowest mean scores for mental health. Acute stress, depression, suicidal inclinations – these are what 30% of youth are experiencing right now. However, what is happening to their psychological landscape comes not from their own visceral dysfunction, but their socio-economic status that is spiralling further down to poverty.
More than 7 out of 10 youth show symptoms of stress and anxiety because of financial stability in their families. The arrival of the pandemic brought in job and income losses, a major blow particularly for workers in retail trade and the hospitality industry. As their financial means of survival dwindle, the burdens of caregiving to shoulder also increase. Furthermore, online learning means additional costs attached to learning necessities (e.g. IT devices and internet services). The struggle to stay alive in a society where premature death seems to be the only outcome has translated into distress and a variation of mental illness. A heritage of structural inequality, passed from the society to the parents and, lastly, to the younger generations.
To nourish the lives and hearts of youth, how could we honor this commitment to youth with justice? Where should we start – the mental, the educational, or the socio-economic?
Leave rigidity behind. Lead learning process amidst the crisis with leniency and compassion.
In the US, educators started questioning the value of conventional grading in the age of the pandemic.
Similar to Thailand, mainstream pedagogy in the US heavily relies on grading with a scale of 1-100. High-stakes testing is a teaching method that determines the level of student performance. This is a high-risk, high-return opportunity for students to show their progress. You either succeed or fail. There is nothing in between. No negotiations. The score is definitive and irrevocable.
Such a system is not without flaws, as it privileges students who do not suffer from multiple dimensions of inequalities. Those who have to provide for their family or lack learning resources are always left behind, unable to finish their work or unable to properly prepare for exams. As a public health crisis such as COVID-19 looms large, the discrepancies in student performance have widened more than ever. This is the reason for certain higher-educational institutions and high schools to opt for an alternative grading system.
To divert from the traditional system, an educator cut down workload by removing unnecessary assignments from the course and making the rules more lenient for students. For example, mark deduction for late assignments was revoked. Students could also correct the mistakes in their work or their tests. Moreover, participation points and other behavioral evaluations were considered irrelevant as they not only failed to truly reflect student performance but also distracted teachers from their actual learning progress.
Another educator employed delayed grading and later encouraged students to make learning contracts with him. For the delayed grading system, students’ works would not be graded until the end of a semester. In this way, their confidence in learning would be kept intact. Students had the opportunity to have one-on-one meetings with their teachers or provide written feedback about the course, and the teachers would respond with their reflections on students’ progresses in the class.
For learning contracts, students have the power to determine the quantity and quality of work required for their desired grade. As the semester progressed, the teacher would provide his reflections on each student’s work and hold private discussions with the students about their learning journeys 5 times.
Educators who switched to the alternative grading system agreed in unanimity that changes were incremental, and thus they still had a long way to go. Of course, deviating from the old-school grading method had sparked controversies among skeptical teachers and parents. But for those who sought alternatives to traditional pedagogy, they could finally grapple with questions that truly matter: what is the point of grading? What use is high-stakes testing in the current socio-economic context? What are its relevance and genuine benefits to the pursuit of education?
Although this was a path strewn with thorns instead of roses, relationships between educators and students had never been better. The educator emphasized that the new system was more equitable to students, opening up myriads of possibilities for them to demonstrate their mastery of knowledge. While some might be concerned that students could take advantage of the alternative system, educators still stood firm, claiming that we should design a learning environment that truly supported students, not a hunting ground for those who dare “cheat,” since loopholes were already found in every grading system, traditional or experimental.
The alternative grading system is much more prevalent in higher education. Ever since COVID-19 evolved into a national hazard, professors around the US replaced high-stakes tests with retakable quizzes, allowing students to check their understanding of knowledge from time to time.
So far chemistry professors in the US advocated for “specifications grading.” Under this system, instructors and teaching assistants will decide on basic knowledge that students are expected to have by the end of the semester, creating detailed rubrics of what constitutes “essential.” If students achieve basic learning outcomes, they will pass the course. If not, they are given opportunities to revise their works and retake the tests. An educator used a system in which students could retake the exam only after revising the required materials. This exam retake policy helps students learn and succeed after trials, just like what happens in real life.
To cancel or not to cancel standardised tests, that is the question.
The pandemic comes with learning loss and heightened anxiety around college application. In some states, such as California, students affected by COVID-19 could change the grading basis to “Pass/No Pass” instead of the letter grade. Back in 2020, the California Department of Education also mandated every school under California State University and University of California to accept transcripts with “Pass/No Pass.” At the same time, high-stakes standardised tests were cancelled in several K-12 school districts.
Furthermore, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or “FairTest,” launched a campaign demanding the suspension of standardised testing in Spring 2021. More than thousands endorsed this campaign, with 64% of parents voting for exam cancellation.
The supporters of this campaign agreed that such tests only benefited the privileged few, reflecting the socio-economic status of exam takers rather than the learning curve of every student. With the pandemic encroaching on every aspect of daily life, the education system should direct its attention toward poverty alleviation, racial inequality, and unequal distribution of education funds across the country, not hosting high-stakes exams that only worsened students’ distress and anxiety.
FairTest reported that, in 2022, more than 1,830 colleges and universities (80%) selected to use test-optional or test-blind admission, and more than 1,400 institutions intended to continue this practice well into 2024. The test waiver policy varied among universities. Some required submission of graded papers or results from Advanced Placement tests as a replacement.
It is essential to bear in mind that the alternative grading system refers to an assemblage of differing methods, and educators have yet to reach a unanimous consensus about the best or the universally applicable way to assist in learning. The heart of this system, however, is leniency and the prioritization of student well-being as much as their performance. This is an education policy that views students as the centrality of learning. Thailand, too, must reconsider the flexibility and adaptability of its education system.