The world has been in the midst of a pandemic since early 2020, and even with the recent vaccination efforts, Bangladesh is yet to reach a favourable stage where mass gatherings, especially those of the scale of board examinations, can be conducted without endangering both the candidates and the vulnerable members of their families. As such, more than 2000 students of O-Level, AS-Level, and A2-Level batches, are humbly requesting Cambridge Assessment International Education to cancel June 2021 series exams, and adopt Teachers-Assessed Grades (TAG) in Bangladesh.
In a petition to the exam board, signed by more than 32,000 international students, those sitting exams say they are at an "unfair disadvantage" compared with peers in the UK, where exams will not be going ahead, with grades awarded through teacher assessment. In July 2020, Cambridge International had updated the students that for June 2021 series, they will be following one single route for the examinations.
Students have experienced a very sudden and unexpected transition from physical to online classes since last year. This had created a whole range of insurmountable difficulties in the normal continuation of our education. It led to a general sense of uncertainty and unease surrounding the complete cessation of normal life. All of these hurdles have significantly prevented students from either being able to focus on completing the syllabus on time or to study in the environments they are used to. As such, the general level of preparation for the majority of candidates is not according to their satisfaction, and that, combined with having to suddenly take a full board examination with minimal practice in physical conditions, would present unfair circumstances for the candidates. However, Cambridge International has failed to take a student-centred decision and is planning to go ahead with exams from April 2021.
It cannot be denied that the domain of the school is strictly confined to the classroom. However, schools and Cambridge International should consider the tumultuous, and oftentimes tragic, changes that have defined the lives of students outside the classroom. The past year has been one of immense loss and regret. Countless students have had to see loved ones being hospitalized with no guarantee to return home, some students have lost precious family members to this deadly virus, while many others have had to endure months and months of severe paranoia, living in constant fear of their grandparents and other family members getting infected. These circumstances have had impactful consequences on both the physical and mental health of the majority of the candidates, making the situation unfit for proper preparation. We believe that these circumstances are far from normal, and should be strongly considered while making decisions.
Since every country has suffered the wrath of this virus, students were expecting that Cambridge International would treat all the countries with equal opportunities in this time of uncertainty. According to the latest news and updates, all international boards such as Pearson Edexcel, International Baccalaureate, and Oxford AQA have decided to cancel physical exams and go forward with Teacher-Assessed Grades (TAG) in Bangladesh, except Cambridge. Cambridge has decided that, out of 160 countries, some countries do not need to sit for physical exams and can receive Teacher-Assessed Grades, while other countries do need to sit for physical exams depending on whether it is permissible by the local government to hold public examinations or not. In a survey done amongst Bangladeshi students, more than 92% of the candidates do not want to sit for the exams.
In public examinations like these, students compete with a fair playing field, and since many countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines already have decided to prioritize the health and well-being of their students through the cancellation of physical exams, the Government of Bangladesh may follow their example. As candidates from other boards, except CAIE, are getting Teacher-Assessed Grades and would apply to universities with those grades, it is unfair that the students from Cambridge International have to sit for the exams and apply with grades that have been achieved from the actual sitting of the exams through their hard work whilst candidates from other boards will apply with predicted grades without sitting for the exam. This framework drastically hampers Cambridge students' chances of getting into a good university, especially when the other candidates now have even more time to focus on university applications and extracurricular activities.
Bangladesh national board's session's period, along with their syllabi have been minimized. However, Cambridge has shown little to no sympathy for its candidates even in these unprecedented times, which is extremely disheartening. The number of candidates sitting for the May/June examination session is an immensely big figure compared to the number of candidates that sat for the October/November 2020 session. Carrying out the exams of these thousands of students all at once whilst maintaining COVID-19 rules and regulations will not be feasible simply because of the astonishing bulk of the students sitting for the exams. Moreover, neither the British Council nor the board has taken responsibility for possible COVID-19 infections in the examination halls if any such situation arises. In fact, the students have been asked to sign a waiver where the Cambridge board takes no responsibility in case of any health compromises such as a Covid-19 outbreak during the exam sessions. This has not only put students' lives at risk but also put them into a dilemma where they could not back out from the exams even if their lives are endangered since backing out in the middle of the session would have a negative impact on their academics. The students do not want to risk their lives taking exams where the board conducting the exam is not even taking any liability whatsoever.
The Cambridge examination board has kept both the school administration and the students in the dark with repeated vague updates with barely any new information that we can use to guide our students. Cambridge has stated in one of their updates that they believe carrying out physical exams is the fairest way to judge a student's capability whilst simultaneously stating that the countries going for Teacher-Assessed Grades from Cambridge will also get fairly standardized grades. As a result, the students are left wondering how they can maintain parity between these two methods and ensure fair grades to the students who are sitting for the actual exams when these two methods are too immensely different ways of awarding grades.
Although the procedure to vaccinate the senior citizens of Bangladesh has started, the situation is still not stable to assume that it is safe for the students to sit for exams. Students should not be made to sit for exams whilst COVID-19 still imposes a threat on their health and lives without any solid protection. Therefore, considering our students' physical safety, their mental health, and in the pursuit of fairness in a time of highly disadvantageous circumstances, Bangladeshi students are humbly requesting the Ministry of Education of Bangladesh to cancel the exams and instruct Cambridge International to adopt Teacher-Assessed Grades for the upcoming May/June examinations. The magnitude of this decision is immense- the future of more than 2000 students' further education and careers rest significantly upon the course of action our government choose to take now. The students always believe that the government will make the right choice with their best interest in mind.
Md Nazmus Sakib Khan is working as a Research Assistant at the Institution for Need-Led Innovation at Oxford and is one of the founding members of the international project, 'Shapers and the Solvers', launched by Global Shapers Dhaka Hub of the World Economic Forum. He is a student of A-Levels at Mastermind English Medium School.
Md Minhazar Rahman is a student of A-Levels at Mastermind English Medium School.