The employment of National Examination (UN) policy as a national standardized testing
for secondary (lately also for primary) school students in Indonesia has triggered a
national debate since the beginning 2003/2004 academic year. This debate seems to be
deadlock as every party believes that they are in right position.
Those who oppose it argue that this policy is considered to be ‘injustice’ to be used as a
base to make a very important decision about students’ life future. This is due to the fact
that there is still a big discrepancy in quality among schools across the regions in
Indonesia. They also believe that the UN has brought about many conspicuous negative
effects on teachers, students, parents, school administrators, and curriculum.
The government, on the other hand, says that the UN is important as the government
needs it as a benchmark to evaluate the success of teaching and learning process in
national level. The result of the UN will be used as one of important inputs as well as
feedbacks for the government to formulate programs for the betterment and
advancement of national education quality.
Having looked at this seemingly endless national debate, it is urgent and necessary to
find out a solution for a more acceptable format of National Examination. This paper
reviews a brief history of national standardized testing in Indonesia, discusses some
negative impacts of the current UN, and offers some preliminary ideas about the
reformulation of National Examination for secondary school students in Indonesia.
2. A Brief History of National Standardized Testing in Indonesia
Standardized testing has long been the dominant feature in the education system in the
Republic of Indonesia. Furqon (2004) in Syahril (2007) explains that in the period of
1965-1971 the Ujian Negara (State exam) was practiced for almost all subjects for
students at the end of each of the school level, elementary, middle school and high
school. Although, a non-standardized testing policy was endorsed for the next seven
years, where schools were given the authority to design and hold the final exam based
on the guidelines from the central government, in 1980 Indonesia went back to the
centralized exam system. The Evaluasi Belajar Tahap Akhir Nasional (National Final
Learning Evaluation), commonly shortened as Ebtanas, was implemented for twenty-one
Starting from the year 2003, a new form of nation-wide standardized exam was called
Ujian Akhir Nasional (National Final Examination), popular with the acronym UAN was
introduced. The subjects tested were Indonesian language, English, and Math. It was up
to the schools and provinces to decide whether or not they required students to take final
tests on other subjects. UAN itself was kept to be done until 2004.
Under the new cabinet in 2005, the new Ministry of Education still decided to conduct a
similar form of test, which was given a new name, Ujian Nasional (National
Examination), shortened as UN. Despite heavy criticisms for the previous UAN, UN still
uses the same format, testing three subjects, Math, Indonesian language and English to
students at the end of their senior year in middle school and high school.
3. Some Important Features of Current National Examination
As a national standardized test, the UN is addressed to all high school students all over
the country who sit in the third year (the new term used in the latest curriculum is “grade
twelve” for senior high school or ‘grade nine’ for junior high school) of their schooling
According to clause 2 of the Decree No. 34/2007 from the Ministry of National Education
or Permendiknas, the main goal of the UN is to measure and assess the students’
knowledge and competence in particular subjects they have learned. Clause 3 of the
same decree specifically states that the National Exams is going to be used as one of
consideration for four purposes: first, as a means of mapping Indonesia’s national
education quality; second as a basis to determine whether students can pass and
proceed from one educational level to another level; third, as the main consideration on
whether to accept new students in the upper levels of education; fourth, as a basis to
supervise and assist particular schools in order to achieve the quality of national
education (Depdiknas, 2007b)
One of important characteristics of UN (including UAN) is that the government employs
the minimum threshold (popular with passing grade) for the candidates to achieve in
order to pass the examination. The minimum threshold is increased year by year, from
3.01 in 2003 to 5.01 in 2006. Even, in 2007/2008 academic year, not only did the
government raise the new minimum threshold, from 5.01 to 5.25, it also added three
more subjects to be tested in the National Examination. The new ones are Math,
Sociology, and Geography for Social Science students, or Biology, Chemistry and
Physics for Natural Science students (Depdiknas, 2007b).
Again, the candidates must achieve the minimum threshold in order to pass the test.
Otherwise, they are going to be considered ‘failed’. Consequently, they have to repeat all
subjects in the following academic year (Depdiknas, 2007b). In other words, failure to
achieve the minimum threshold in UN will automatically result in failure to graduate high
school, regardless the student’s overall performance during their school years.
Looking at the serious consequences made from UN, It is clear that this National
Examination can be categorized as a high stakes testing. McNamara (2000, p. 48)
defines a high-stakes test as “a test which provides information on the basis of which
significant decisions are made about candidates”. So, in high stakes testing, a test is
generally used as the basis to make an important decision about students’ lives. The
decision could relate to admission to a course or to having access to the market place.
4. Negative Impacts of UN on Teachers, Students, School Administrators, and
As a high stakes testing, it is believed that the UN has brought about many impacts on
the stakes-holders in education. A qualitative study by Afrianto (2007) by conducting indepth
interviews with some English teachers in Tanah Datar West Sumatera confirms
some serious negative impacts of the UN on teachers, students, and curriculum. The
impacts are that the UN has led teachers to do ‘teaching to the test’, narrowing
curriculum, willing to engage on cheating, and feeling under pressure.
4.1. Teaching to the Test
It is apparent that the high stakes of National Examination has led teachers to teaching
to the test activity. This means that most of teaching activities focus on familiarizing the
students with the features of the test as well as introducing test taking strategies to the
students to enable them to answer the questions well. In other word, because of
teaching to the test activities, teachers tend to be less creative and less innovative in
designing their lesson. What is perceived as more important to teach is the skills to
answer the multiple-choice pencil-and-paper tests
In the Indonesian classroom context, what teachers usually practice is that they conduct
extra classes where most of the time they employed activities like familiarizing the
students with the test format, discussing the questions, discussing strategies to answer
the questions in more easily and more quickly as well as conducting some trial tests
prior to the real examination. They made a close link between the contents of their
teaching with the content of the UN test.
In short, because of this teaching to the test activity, the learning atmosphere in many
schools now has unconsciously changed to be like in tutoring institution (Bimbingan
Belajar) where teachers there usually employ the test-driven drills approach in their
teaching. This activity implies doing something in class that may not be compatible with
teacher’s own values and goals or with the values or goals stated in the curriculum.
According to Swain (1985, p. 43 cited in Bailey 1999, p. 21) this phenomenon is an
inevitable consequence of a high-stakes testing policy within education. Similarly, Lachat
(1999, p. 13) states, ‘the belief that “high stakes” test scores were the most reliable
indicator of both student achievement and educational quality has shaped educators’
views about what should be taught in schools for decades’.
Yet it is worthwhile to bearing in mind that the practice of teaching to the test could bring
about some problems. It could result in some unwanted consequences within the nature
of teaching and learning. One of the consequences is that it has made teachers neglect
other subjects which are not tested in this National Examination. As Popham (2000,
cited in Volante, 2004, p. 3) maintains, “teaching to the test phenomenon may include
relentless drilling on test content, eliminating important curricular content not covered by
the test, and providing interminably long practice session that incorporates actual items
from these high-stakes standardized tests”.
Furthermore, Popham reminds that “item-teaching, instruction around items either found
on a test or a set of look-alike items, is reprehensible since it erodes the inferences we
can make about students’ scores.” By this understanding, we can not simply judge a
student’s English proficiency, for example, merely based on his or her English score in
the National Examination. A student who gets a high score after being exposed
extensively to items of the English National Examination through items teaching
activities might have poor real English proficiency. On the other hand, it is possible for a
certain student, who has relatively good English competency, gets a lower score,
because the teacher does not employ items teaching; and therefore the student is not
familiar with the test mechanism.
In this context, Volante (2004, para. 8) further reminds us that research conducted by
Shepard (2000) and Smith and Fey (2000) suggests that “while students’ scores will rise
when teachers teach closely to a test, learning often does not change. In fact, the
opposite may be true. That is, there are schools that have demonstrated improvements
in student learning while their standardized test scores did not show significant gains.”
This research finding implies that a high score obtained by students in a particular
school might not accurately reflect that school has a good teaching quality. It is possible
that they get a good score, because they do ‘teaching to the test’ activities intensively
prior to the test. Conversely, it is likely for the students who enroll in a school with a good
English program to get a lower score, because English teachers in this school focus on
the nature of teaching as mandated in the English curriculum, instead of focusing on
teaching to the test. Schools with excellent students English debate activities, for
example, might be unable to achieve an excellent score in English test, as the test does
not assess students’ speaking or debate skills. So, because of the teaching of the test,
“schools may be mistakenly categorized as high achieving because of their utilization of
inappropriate test preparation activities, not necessarily because of the actual
characteristics of their student body” (Volante, 2004, para.12)
Furthermore, the practice of teaching to the test in Indonesian classrooms has also
undermined the predictive validity of the test results, as the results are likely not to give
an authentic picture of the candidates’ proficiency, and therefore could not be used as
the basis to predict their academic achievement in the higher levels of education.
4.2. Narrowing the Curriculum
Another subsequent impact of teaching to the test activities is that the test, in some
ways, has narrowed down the school curriculum (Yeh cited in Mitchel, 2006). This
means that the teachers mainly focus on teaching the subjects tested in the national
exam and ignore other subjects. Volante (2004, para. 9) maintains, “teaching to the test
not only reduces the depth of instruction in specific subjects but it also narrows the
curriculum so that non-tested disciplines receive less attention during the school day”.
In current Indonesian classroom practices, there is a trend that time is often devoted
away from subjects like History, Religious teaching, Physical Education, Arts, and Life
Skills. In other words, teachers provide more instructional time on commonly tested
areas like Bahasa Indonesia, English and Mathematics. Even, some schools only
require their students only to study the six subjects tested in the national examination
and intentionally ignore the other subjects.
The ignoring of these subjects in the schools could undoubtedly lead teachers to narrow
down the curriculum. This means that there will be an unmentioned understanding in the
students’ and teachers’ subconscious minds that the other subjects are not as important
as other tested-subjects.
A serious problem may appear if teachers as well as students think in such a way,
because they may find in their real life later that the ignored subjects are, in fact, very
important. In English teaching context, a student may develop a narrow view of English
learning. They might have been misled by the fact that the English test in the National
Examination only addresses two macro skills (reading and listening), and therefore many
teachers focus on teaching these two skills. It is possible that this focus would lead
students to an unmentioned understanding that other skills (speaking and writing) are
not as important as reading and listening skills. In fact, these four skills are equally
important when they communicate later in a real life situation.
Herman (2002, cited in Volante, 2004) further argues that teaching a narrow curriculum
is likely to isolate some students whose academic strengths lie outside of the tested
skills. In an English testing context, students who are good at speaking and writing
would probably unable to pass the test, as the test does not assess their speaking and
writing skills. The same case might happen to other students who are really good at
physical education or very talented in music, but unable to graduate from school as they
can’t do the six subjects tested well.
4.3. Willing to Engage in Cheating
The high stakes nature of the test has encouraged some students and even teachers in
Indonesia to be willing to engage in cheating during the examination. Cheating cases
have been identified in many places across the regions in Indonesia during the
examination, like in Aceh, Medan Pekanbaru, Padang, Cilegon, Depok, Bandung,
Ngawi, and in many other places (Depdiknas, 2007a; Kompas, 2006; Rakyat, 2006).
The cases have been unhappy annual stories in Indonesian education after the
examination finishes. In 2006/2007 academic year, for example, 72 of Dhuafa Vocational
High School students in Padang West Sumatera walked out from the test rooms as a
protest to the exam committee. They perceived that the exams committees as doing
nothing when other students were allegedly cheating in the examination (Bachyul, 2007).
In the same year, another case was in Medan city, North Sumatera. Some teachers in
this city quit from being the test invigilators and then gathered to report the allegedly
systematic cheating all over the Medan region. This group of teachers attracted
nationwide attention when they presented evidence of rampant cheating during the
examination. They reported that the cheating itself had been systematically organised by
some principals and teachers long before the test day (Gunawan, 2007).
In the following year, 2007/2008 academic year, the same case again became a public
attention when sixteen teachers in Medan were arrested by Densus Anti Teror 88 (a
special police brigade whose main task to fight against terrorism in Indonesia) because
they were allegedly engaged in cheating activity by correcting the students’ answer
sheet after the examination finished (Kompas, 2008).
It is found that the methods of teachers’ involvement in alleged teaching during the
National Examination in Indonesia are starting from letting their students ‘help each
other’ during the exams, correcting and rewriting students’ answers, distributing answers
to the students in the class via sms or via a piece of paper hanging on somewhere
around the school where certain students could easily pick it out and then distribute it to
other students, to stealing the question papers prior to the examination day as happened
to a high school principal who was caught stealing the papers in Ngawi, East Java
(Gunawan, 2007; Napitupulu, 2007).
It is reasonably assumed that these cheating cases are closely related to the issues of
unfairness within the passing grade policy. The minimum threshold is considered to be
too high for students in rural areas where they usually learn with limited facilities. As a
teacher confessed she tends to let her students engaged in cheating during exams,
because she knows that it’s really hard for their students to achieve the required
minimum score in order to pass the test by themselves. Moreover, she couldn’t stand to
see her students to repeat in the following year if they didn’t pass the test (Afrianto,
Whatever the reasons, cheating is indeed a crime. This misbehaviour is really an
unhappy story for the future of Indonesian education. It will certainly affect the way the
students learn. It is likely that they are unwilling to study hard anymore, as they can pass
the test easily by engaging in cheating during examination. Furthermore, cheating can
erode and kill the basic educational values which engender respect for discipline, hard
working ethics, and honesty.
4.4. Feeling stressed and under pressure
The high stakes nature of the test has made teachers feel stressed and under pressure
in conducting teaching activities prior to the test day. This stress is also triggered by the
fact that teachers have been burdened by high expectations from school principals and
from parents in order to help students pass the test. Consequently, many teachers
reported that they were feeling insecure and worried if their students would not pass the
test. They are afraid of being blamed by the society as being unqualified teachers if
many students failed in the examination (Afrianto, 2007)
It is obviously not good for the teaching process if teachers are feeling under pressure.
This insecure feeling may lead teachers to a situation where they can not enjoy their
profession. When teachers find that teaching is no longer enjoyable, it may prevent their
efforts to be creative and professional. The worst thing is that this unwanted situation will
eventually affect the educational quality in Indonesia. If this situation happens, where
teachers are feeling unhappy due to pressure of the national examination, it is certainly a
paradoxical situation as the existence of the national examination itself was initially
intended to improve the quality of national education in Indonesia.
Syahril (2007) also reported that feeling under pressure is not only felt by teachers, but
also by students and school administrators. In the last exams (2007/2008 academic
year), it was reported that a student of junior high school in Kerjo Karanganyar killed
herself after knowing that she didn’t pass the national examination (Rasyid, 2007). Many
witnesses believe that she did the suicide because she was depressed of high
consequences of the UN.
In addition, the pressure can be a lot bigger for school administrators, because the exam
scores are used as the symbol for prestige for them. The scores are used as the criteria
to determine good quality schools, either by the ministry of education, or by the general
public. They are very competitive about the ranking of their schools, and will often do
whatever it takes to achieve maximum results.
It is believed that this situation has led teachers, students, and school administrators did
a ‘short cut’ by doing manipulative acts during the exams. As Syahril (2007, p. 7) reports,
“the pressure has seemed to force teachers and administrators to take short-cuts to
ensure that their goals are achieved. The serious incapacity to achieve the target results
has frustrated many teachers and administrators that they have decided to use unethical
practices to solve their problem”
5. A Need for a ‘New UN’ Reformulation.
Having looked at those serious negative effects of UN on teachers, students, and school
administrators, it is urgent and necessary for us now to rethink and reformulate this UN
with a better format which is more acceptable by every related stake-holder.
Here, I offer some preliminary ideas about the issue of reformulation of the UN. My ideas
are divided into two schemes; some ideas for currently existing format of UN and a
formulation for a ‘new UN’.
If the government wants to keep the current format of UN exist, I think the government
must do all mandated points in Permendiknas about the UN consistently. One of
important points in that Permendiknas is that the government should pay special
attention, supervise, and give assistance to schools which perform under standard in the
previous UN. In other words, low achiever schools are entitled for special treatment from
the government to make them perform better in the next exams. However, as far as I am
concerned, the government has not yet done its obligation regarding this issue. Low
achiever schools remain under achievers as they have never got any assistance from
Then, a ‘remedial’ test in the same year (not so long after the first examination finish)
should also be considered to be reapplied for students who can not achieve the
threshold in the first test. It is important to remember that it is very possible for a
particular student, because of a certain condition, like physically unwell or
psychologically sick; he or she can not perform well in the first examination. So, by
giving him or her a second chance, s/he might be able to show his or her best and can
achieve the threshold.
In addition, it is highly recommended for the government to reduce the stakes of the UN
as it is believed that the high nature of the stakes of the UN has brought about many
negative impacts on teachers, students, and school administrators. To put this in
practice, it is necessary to amend the article in Ministry of National Education Act which
states that this exam will be used as a base to determine whether a student can leave
his or her high school. It really sounds unreasonable if the students’ life is only
determined by the score of the six subjects tested in the UN.
I myself still think that the UN is still necessary to motivate students, teachers, and
school administrators to perform better at their schools. But the result of the test should
only be used as one inputs for schools quality mapping in Indonesia by which the
government can design a special program to reduce the gap between good performance
schools and low performance schools rather than being used for graduation
Furthermore, a district based examination is also an interesting alternative as a solution
for the current controversial UN as one of important issues within UN policy is that there
is a huge gap in quality among schools across the regions in Indonesia. So, a district
made exams may become a way out for this problem. Here, each district is given
authority to run its own evaluation system as a part of autonomy policy within education
sector in Indonesia.
In a district based exam system, the local government can assign a special body to
formulate and design ‘the best format of district examination’ by considering every
unique characteristic they have, while the central government main task is only to control
and supervise the local government to achieve the national standards of education.
Then, let teachers at schools make a final decision regarding the students’ graduation by
taking students’ whole performance during their school period into account, as it is clear
that a teacher is the one who exactly knows every single development made by a
particular student during his or her study at school. This is not only a way to have a more
reasonable decision about student, but also to return the teachers’ authority in doing the
evaluation process for their students’ learning as mandated by law (Article 58/1 UU No.
20/2003 about National Education System).
When teachers are given authority to determine whether a student can leave the school
or not, she should consider ‘the students’ multiple intelligence’ during their school period.
So, it is expected that a teacher should put a student’s musical intelligence, kinesthetic
intelligence, interpersonal intelligence (among others) in an equal line with student’s
mathematic and linguistic intelligence when s/he makes a decision whether a student
can leave the school.
Here, the use of portfolio assessment is highly recommended, as this kind of
assessment will be more likely to depict more comprehensive pictures about students’
academic and personal development during his or her schooling period. A correct use of
portfolio assessment will help teachers to have a valid source to consider for the
The limited use of the UN test result is also another issue. Here, I think we can learn
from the practice of Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) in Victoria Australia. VCE is
a state standardized test in Victoria whose result is usually used for ranking
determination to pursue to university. The university in Australia has no special test for
selecting new students. The acceptance of a high school graduate in a university in
Victory is purely based on the student’s score in VCE and the rank issued by a special
body, Victorian Tertiary Admission Centre (VTAC), which helps the government to rank
the high school graduates based on their VCE scores.
Last, like the use of VCE in Australia, it is also important for the government in Indonesia
to find out the possibility to use the result of UN to enroll in a university. It really sounds
‘unfortunate’ if the results of UN can only be used for leaving the school purpose by the
students. It is worth nothing that when school graduates want to continue their study to
higher levels of education in Indonesia, they are required to take another test for
entering the universities (well-known as The University Entrance Test/SPMB) as the
authorities in universities are unwilling to take the National Examination score results
into account. In other words, the students’ scores from this National Examination are
‘useless’ to predict students’ future life in education.
As a controversial national policy, the government needs to open their eyes and listen
carefully and emphatically to the voices from many parties which has continuously
reminded the government that there is ‘something wrong’ with the current format of the
National Examination in Indonesia. The UN has brought about many conspicuously
negative impacts on teachers, students, curriculum, and school administrators. The
impacts range from the issue of teaching to the students, feeling under pressure,
narrowing curriculum, to willing to engage in cheating.
This paper has discussed some preliminary ideas which is hopefully useful as alternative
solutions for the controversial UN. Some of the proposed ideas are that the government
needs to reduce the stakes of the test, to return the authority for evaluations to the
teachers as the owner stated in Educational Law, to use the portfolio assessment by
paying attention to every dimension of student’s intelligence, to reapply the remedial
test, and to find possibility to use UN score to enter the university.
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