On the Right Track? Iran Edges toward Education Reform

After several years of public debate, Iran has finally adopted into law the guidelines to eliminate the national university entrance examinations – the infamous concour. The law requires the government to replace the big test by 2011 with scores from the previous three years of high school.

The concour has been the single most important event in young people’s lives for the past half a century and is what most Iranian students have come to view as the ultimate purpose of going to school. The score they obtain in the big test is fed into computers along with their rankings of schools and programs of their choice which then determine career tracks (or lack thereof). Each student is assigned to the highest program on his or her list that is supported by the student’s score. This selection system works well for the roughly ten percent of the 1.3 million contenders who are chosen to enroll in a public university, but very poorly for the rest who face paying large fees for private schools or join the ranks of the unemployed high school graduates.

The impact of the test on education is to narrow down the goal of learning to enrich one’s quality of life to that of passing a single multiple-choice test. At a time when the country needs to train its young with a wide range of skills that enables them to compete in the global marketplace, the narrow focus of Iran’s education has become an obstacle in economic development. At the level of the family, the concour is much disliked because of the immense stress it generates for the entire family and the huge financial burden it places on parents to pay for private school and private tutors. For years I have watched child and education psychologists lament on Iranian television the negative effects of the big test on child development. We are told that teaching and learning for the test has led to undue emphasis on memorization at the expense of increasing student curiosity and creativity.

Yet, there is also considerable ambivalence about doing away with the concour all together. Many ordinary Iranians highly value the objectivity of the mechanical, computer generated system of test results and allocation of students to universities. For good reason they are very concerned with leaving such life-altering decisions to humans who might be susceptible to influence peddling. As in all public decisions, the benefits of the concour must be weighed against its costs. The decision to eliminate it has come after deliberations at various levels of the government, the Parliament, and the Guardian Council, which had the final say.

But my reading of the Iranian press leaves me with doubt if the extent of the public debate on this issue was matched the significance of the decision. The law anticipates using high school records instead of the result of the big test to rank students. Would these tests then be all multiple choice? Does the new law simply replace one test with many? That in itself would be desirable, but it would not solve the learning problems associated with multiple choice testing.

I hope to see in Iran in the next few years a good public discussion on not just how we go from one big test to several smaller ones but how we can promote interest in learning and skill acquisition. What sort of testing will provide incentives for better writing skills or learning history – inexplicably absent from the “big” test in recent years An informed public debate would even tackle broader questions: Why has Iran come to rely on such a centralized system of testing, which is extreme by standards of most developing countries? Have those reasons become less important over time? There is much to learn from the experience of other countries in balancing both objectivity in testing and deep, diverse content.

Another important question is the relationship between educational testing and how rewards to skills are determined in the labor market. Since better jobs are the most important reason why people seek university education, and employers must be rewarding success based on the students’ university track which is a direct outcome of their performance in the test, it is fair to ask what employers think of the decision to do away with the dreaded concour. I have not seen any commentary on this issue but I think it should be at the heart of the debate to abolish the concour.

Historically, the most desirable jobs in Iran (as in the rest of the Middle East) have been public sector jobs. In Iran, some 80 percent of college graduates work for the government. As their main employer, the government seems more keen on the type of degree they hold than what they could do on the job. Since once hired civil servants are rarely if ever laid off, information that comes after a person is hired is much less useful to the employer than what is known beforehand—that is, school ranks, test results, and diplomas. By replacing the big test with school grades, the new law does not change the nature of the information employers receive, only where it comes from.

Imagine instead a world in which employers were interested to know what a person can actually do on the job (they are called the private sector!). Ex ante signals would be much less important than productivity on the job, and demand for schools to teach skills would increase. In this case, an exam like the concour would be much less relevant, because one cumulative test would not be able to determine a student’s performance in a job that requires multiple skills (and not multiple choices).

The new guidelines for student selection should generate discussions to consider these wider issues and ensure that the new system serves well Iran’s need for creative skilled workers.