The role of examinations in Kenyan schools is under scrutiny. This is because there is a lot that is wrong with the country’s examinations, a situation that threatens to derail education gains made over the decades.
For instance, for two consecutive years – last year and the year before – the periods during the country’s national examination period were marred by allegations of leaked tests. These allegations are linked to cartels which make money from parents and learners.
There were also reports this year of high school students receiving contradicting results from the examination results portal.
These issues cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the examining body and the Ministry of Education in general.
In 2017, the government set out to replace summative examinations – national tests done at the end of eight years of primary school and four years of high school – with continuous assessments. Most students have moved over to the new system, which revolves around a competency-based curriculum. But four more cohorts of students still have to sit the annual national high school examinations under Kenya’s old education curriculum. There is still a lot that is unclear about how the new curriculum will assess students in secondary school.
As someone who has been involved in education for over 20 years, I believe that exams are crucial. There are five main reasons for this, including highlighting inequalities in the education system and providing learners with guidance on their career path.
But they need to be done right to be effective. For any system to work efficiently – which Kenya’s doesn’t – this includes changing a situation in which so much relies on the exam outcome. Other career pathways need to be opened up so that children aren’t under such huge pressure. Also, schools need adequate staffing and facilities to promote learning.
Why examinations matter
There are compelling reasons not to do away with examinations.
First, examinations help identify, understand and address inequalities in access to education. As a basic human right, every child should be able to get a quality education. A persistently low performance in examinations can be an indicator of personal or social obstacles like gender, geographical position, social class, race or ethnicity in a learner’s life.
Second, examinations help improve teaching and learning by strengthening teaching methods. A learner-centred approach has better outcomes than a teacher-centred one, which tends to silence learners’ voices. Tests help indicate which students need additional help to support their learning.
Third, they are used as a tool for knowing what learners are learning and its relevance to the country’s development goals. Education is closely linked to the political, social and economic development of a country. Examinations test the skills, knowledge and values that students pick up in the course of an education cycle, and how well the country can harness these skills and knowledge to industrialise and for general development.
Fourth, examinations provide guidance for learners’ personal and career development in the post-secondary world. This gives tertiary institutions the opportunity to select suitable students for various career pathways in their institutions. However, high school examination results are not necessarily a predictor of student success in tertiary education.
Fifth, examinations offer qualifying certification that accounts for a student’s time in a learning institution. This certification shows that one has successfully completed an education period.
What needs to change
But this system needs to be improved.
Firstly, the pressure needs to be taken off children sitting final examinations at school. Many candidates write examinations under immense pressure and anxiety as failing a national examination has major implications on the direction their life takes. For this to change, Kenya’s education system needs to be geared to preparing students to seize other opportunities of earning a livelihood beyond going to university.
Secondly, examinations have been given outsized importance as an accountability measure in the education system, despite other factors being at play. These include adequate staffing, having trained and motivated teachers, and providing a good work environment and facilities.
Thirdly, the ranking of top schools and learners based on exam results needs to be abolished entirely. The government officially stopped such rankings in 2014, but the practice persists in other forms, like in informal media rankings.
Rankings promote elitism and corruption. Schools that are ranked “the best” are often those near urban centres, and have better teaching facilities than those in rural or marginalised areas. Parents who can afford it can pay bribes to get their children admitted into such schools, even if these students don’t meet the grades officially required. This crowds out poor and deserving learners.
The dangers of ranking schools include the exclusion of non-performing learners, forced repetition of classes and the transfer or dropping out of students perceived to be poor academically. Rankings narrow curriculum coverage, lead to the neglect of other aspects of education and encourage examination malpractices.
Examinations are viewed negatively for a number of reasons. These include increased stress levels among learners, and human interference in the management and administration processes. But they still play a relevant role in providing a quantitative measure of a learner’s academic ability. This helps with identifying their strengths and weaknesses, which provides an idea of where to place them in tertiary institutions or in jobs.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.