Entrance examinations: Barrier to young children's growth and development

How is the culture of the entrance exam in early grades negatively impacting young children and the overall practices of pre-schools?

Dr. Dipu Shakya (Education Specialist) and Kenji Kitamura (Education Officer), UNICEF Nepal
23 March 2022

The couple of months before a new academic session is a stressful time for parents in Nepal, especially those who have young children who are set to start grade one. The first step to getting their young children enrolled – especially in urban areas like Kathmandu where there are lots of choices for schools – is filling out the school application forms. In addition to this, parents also have a huge task of getting their five- to six-year-olds ready for various entrance examinations. Yes, you heard that right: This is all for enrolment in grade one.

All parents want is for their child to receive a quality education at a ‘good’ school and grow up to reach their potential and be happy. However, often these ‘good’ schools are found conducting entrance exams for young children. Overcoming this entrance season is a huge stress for both children and parents. This article is not intended to judge the merits of individual schools but rather to explain how the culture of the entrance exam is negatively impacting young children in Nepal and the overall practices of pre-schools.

Illustration of parents with child
UNICEF Nepal/2021/PShrestha

Why entrance exams?

As per the free and compulsory education bill (2075 B.S.) clause 3.1, all citizens in Nepal have a right to equitable access to quality education, free from any kind of discrimination. In relation to school enrolment, children in basic school have the right to be enrolled in age-appropriate classes within a periphery of two kilometers from their residence (clause 7.1). Though the bill does not allow schools to deny enrolment to any child, the bill (clause 9.1) also recognizes the right of schools to decline enrolment under three conditions: (1) if the number of seats each school allocated for respective classes are already fulfilled; (2) if the child does not fulfil the minimum standards set for that class; and (3) if the school cannot take in additional children due to its limited physical infrastructure.

The reality is that schools that are high demand and have limited seats cannot accept all of the thousands of applications they receive. Consequently, the ‘entrance exam’ has come into practice in Nepal, especially at many institutional (private) schools and some popular community schools. 

What does the entrance test entail?

As per the second criteria of the bill, schools can assess children based on the minimum standards for grade one and allow enrolment of those children who meet these standards. In this case, this refers to the skills children are expected to develop in pre-school and before grade one. However, many schools appear to be testing beyond the grade level according to the “entrance exam preparation” books available in the market. As per the Early Learning Development Standards and pre-primary curriculum issued by the government, learning at the pre-primary level should be focused on conceptual understanding and holistic development of the children, while academic content is limited to pre-literacy (recognition of simple letters/words) and pre-numeracy (recognition up to number 9).

Contrary to this, many grade-one entrance exams include paper and pencil tests conducted based on the assumption that the young children can write complex words or even simple sentences. They test the ability of young children to be able to write names of flowers, animals, provinces of Nepal or do addition/subtraction or even multiplication/division of four-digit numbers. These are skills that children are expected to learn only towards the end of grade one or in some instances, in grade three.

There are also some progressive schools which assess children based on holistic development, particularly focused on their social skills related to how they communicate with their peers. However, schools have also been found to be assessing children based on their social backgrounds, leading certain social groups to be enrolled to certain schools. Such a selection based on certain social groups can work as reproduction of social class rather than promoting mobility between social classes, which schools are expected to promote. In some instances, this approach is implicitly discriminatory.  As parents, educators, or anyone else concerned about young children, we should really take a deep dive into how these entrance exams and assessments of children, based on their social backgrounds, can negatively affect our children and the education system.

How does the entrance exam culture negatively affect overall pre-school practice?

What is tested is what gets taught! The pre-school curriculum and early learning development standards focus on holistic development. However, both community and institutional pre-schools are increasingly becoming highly academic and one of the reasons for this change is the influence of entrance exams that assess the children on academic content. Many pre-schools that do not offer classes beyond the pre-primary level, tend to teach children with the objective of getting them exam-ready for grade one in another school. These pre-schools focus at least six months of their upper kindergarten on preparation for entrance exams. They even use the number of their students who have gotten enrolled in grade one at various ‘good’ schools as a marketing tool to attract new parents. The academic focus, which is beyond the pre-school curriculum and standards, has unfortunately become a social norm. In addition, these academic-centric pre-schools are being copied by majority of ‘other’ pre-schools including community schools, especially when the pre-primary education system is a free and competitive market with little regulation.

How does it affect the child?

While not much specific research has been done on the issue in Nepal, global literature shows that a strong focus on academic subjects during the early years of a child’s life puts excessive stress on a child and negatively impacts her or his motivation, self-confidence and attitude toward school. Many educators and parents in Nepal may not consider such non-academic skills and attitudes as important factors as they tend to focus on the immediate learning outcomes that they believe to be directly related to the later academic success. However, these non-academic skills and attitudes and approaches to learning are what actually play a foundational role in supporting children’s long-term learning trajectories.

What should be done instead?

There is no perfect solution or silver bullet to this problem, as it stems from deeply-ingrained misconceptions and beliefs in our society and education system. Everybody is part of the problem and we all can be part of the solution too! As parents, we need to understand that each child is unique, and no entrance exam can properly measure their potential. On the contrary, the approach can be harmful for children. Parents need to understand that children need to develop physically, emotionally, and socially, and all these skills are critical for long-term learning achievements. Child-rights organizations and schools should work to sensitize and support parents and caregivers on the need for holistic development, especially non-academic skills.  

Local governments can and should play an active role in bringing change in the education system to develop well-rounded and compassionate citizens. They can start by considering the serious consequences caused by these entrance exams, and by starting to monitor and regulate these practices.  Furthermore, the simple yet no-pressure approach that is beneficial to children would be for local governments to promote random and fair processes, such as “lottery” practice i.e., drawing the given number of children randomly either manually or through a computer. If the school wants to do the assessment, it should be done based on holistic development or early learning and development standards and not based on potentially harmful paper-pencil tests.

Ultimately, if a ‘quality’ education was guaranteed in every school and in close proximity, there would not be a need for parents and caregivers to worry about which school to send their children to. Hence, the three tiers of the Government in Nepal and other stakeholders should work towards ensuring quality education for all children, everywhere.