Indonesia’s Most Important Exam is Flawed.

Ditulis oleh: Brian Melchior
Disunting oleh: Ghafi Reyhan
Ilustrasi oleh: Bima Oktavian

On the 14th of August 2020, 702,420 students waited with bated breath for the clock to strike three. At the turn of the hour, they will receive the results of Indonesia’s most gruelling academic selection: the state university entrance test (SBMPTN). 

The results will reveal whether these students qualify for a seat in Indonesia’s elite, government-subsidized bachelor programs. For some, admission is merely one of many options. If rejected, they can take a gap year or enter one of the many private universities ready to accept their cash. For less fortunate students, admission is non-negotiable, as forking out steep tuition for private education is out of the question. 

With so much at stake, it is necessary to examine how universities choose prospective students. On paper, the SBMPTN is simple. Students take a computer-based exam (UTBK) and use the acquired score to apply to their university of choice. Type in “UTBK” into any search engine. You will find many learning materials, discussion forums, and glib motivational posts promising success in the exam for those who work hard and pray. While at times necessary, the flood of preparatory material draws attention away from the fact that the exam in question is deeply flawed. 

The UTBK demands rote memorization in place of critical analysis and places poorer students in rural areas at a disadvantage. It also promotes a national culture where “education” means cramming students for three years at the expense of independent thought, robbing students of the skills needed to survive college-level education. To recalibrate students’ competencies with real-world demands, the government abolished the much-maligned National Exam (UN) in 2019. To bring this goal to completion, it must abolish the UTBK as well.

The main argument for the abolishment of the UTBK is its problematic content and structure. The exam is entirely multiple-choice—an assortment of by-the-book questions that reward rote memorization at the expense of deep comprehension (last year’s exam asked students to name Sukarno’s preferred clothing brand). The exam’s “analytical” questions are no better, relying on an array of brain games often with no definitive answers. This makes self-study a near-impossible task. Hence, students who succeed are those who can access question banks filled with heaps of past questions and have private teachers who can navigate the exam’s intricacies. This access comes at a hefty price.

Access to the best resources is monopolized by a handful of tutoring services that emerged to accommodate the growing number of students vying for a spot in state universities. In exchange for rigorous training and near-guaranteed admission, they demand exorbitant fees. This gives affluent city-dwellers an undue advantage. The best tutoring services are located in big cities, and some provinces outside Java do not even have them. But even proximity is not a guarantee, as only a lucky few can even consider spending tens of millions of rupiah on exclusive tutoring. The UTBK has been lauded as meritocratic. It is not. Yes, students are chosen based on scores, not greased palms. But the reality is that money and location buy access, and access smooths the path to admission.

But the most pernicious consequence of the UTBK is the culture it creates. Because of its importance, high schools build their curriculum around tackling the exam. In practice, this means three years of cramming students with multiple-choice questions—allowing no room for independent analyses. Parents reprimand teachers who encourage studying beyond the exam for not preparing students in the “right” way. This is understandable; parents equate a state degree with stability and success. Schools stake their reputation on how many of their graduates enter state universities. They will make sure that many do.

The trade-off is clear. The ability to read critically about various topics, aptitude in dealing with projects, and working effectively with fellow students—skills that the government wants its students to have—are neglected. When admission rests on a single exam score, all other activities become irrelevant.

So what is a viable alternative? Using one score to gauge a student’s capacity is neither realistic nor fair. In light of this, we should begin to discuss a more holistic admissions process. Why not ask students to attach a selected school project with a short essay describing how it shaped their understanding of the subject? We could also ask them to reflect on an impactful book they read. For those involved in extracurriculars, maybe a thorough explanation of what they’ve learned would suffice. An isolated score does not define students; the admissions process should reflect this reality.

A new admissions process would invoke a fundamental shift in the way schools operate. It would allow students to pursue their interests safe in the knowledge that it won’t be a hindrance. Parents would be more receptive to their children trying out new things. Teachers—free from the burden of a looming exam—would have leeway to introduce newer and more interactive methods. If universities still need an academic benchmark, the revamped National Assessment (which replaced the UN) could serve as a new and improved alternative.

The Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim has shown willingness to break away from custom to introduce a healthier culture for students. The abolishment of the UN is proof of this. But for Indonesia to move past its educational quandary, it must first move past the UTBK.

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *