School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

High stakes testing – Meet Nasreen Sultana

PhD Student in Education

by Phil Gaudreau

Nasreen Sultana

In Canada, if you fail a test, you might have to take summer school classes or be held back a bit in your studies.

In Bangladesh, failing tests could mean an end to your educational journey. If you don’t get an adequate score on the state examinations, you don’t get to continue onto the next education level. If you can’t further your education, you have no chance of securing a better job.

In such a high stakes environment, Bangladeshi students are less interested in learning and become entirely focused on their grades. That’s a problem, says PhD candidate Nasreen Sultana.

“I chose to conduct the research in Bangladesh for two reasons – to contribute something to my home country, and because Canada does not have the same kind of high stakes examinations that I wanted to study,” she says. “In Bangladesh, some people literally commit suicide if they don't pass. So, I am researching washback to understand and explore the consequences of this testing policy on teaching and learning of English.”

In this kind of environment, students focus strictly on preparing for the test. They consciously know they aren’t actually learning English or the other essential knowledge – which was a revelation to Nasreen who, prior to beginning her PhD in Education at Queen’s, was a university teacher in Bangladesh.

“Discovering that the students knew the curriculum was not producing any real language skills was very interesting,” she says. “The students know they need to take the tests anyways because they need to have a high score to go on to higher education and get a better job. They want to improve their English but it is not clear to them on how to get there because they are so focused on their short-term goal.”

Nasreen completed her undergraduate degree and her masters in Bangladesh, and another masters in India. She returned to Bangladesh to become a teacher for several years before she finally started her life-long dream to become a doctorate. Eventually, she came to Queen’s to work with Prof. Liying Cheng; in fact, Prof. Cheng was the sole reason for Nasreen for coming to Queen’s.

It’s not just Nasreen working on her PhD, however. Her young daughter, who was two when Nasreen began her studies, has grown up with her mom in school. 

As a mother to a young child, Nasreen has a busy schedule. She remembers – and occasionally still experiences – some long nights holding her daughter in one arm and typing with the other. Fortunately, she has found support, solace, and encouragement through the Ban Righ Centre at Queen’s.

“Ban Righ is a place of safety and when you go there, nobody asks you any questions and you can just hide if you need to,” she says. “Their study rooms, their nap rooms, the caring staff, the workshops, and the lunches…it’s this wonderful place of togetherness. When you go to Ban Righ, you find other women with common challenges and you can relate to each other. The staff really listen and care too.” 

Despite the heavy workload, Nasreen finds time to enjoy the Kingston waterfront and writes on a variety of topics, from fiction to ‘silly stuff’, under pseudonyms. She is also starting to think about how her research will impact her home country after graduation (Nasreen hopes to finish in August within the four year timeframe), and where she will work.

 “I am from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, which is very crowded and overpopulated,” she says. “When you come to Kingston, you immediately feel at peace. It has given me the peace I was looking for and never realized I needed. So, I am looking for jobs in Kingston.”

She is also keen to share her experience at Queen’s with more international students to help bring a greater diversity of perspectives to the Faculty of Education.

To learn more about the PhD in Education at Queen’s, visit